Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wonders of New York

Here’s a piece about an event in NYC in which I took part at the end of last month.

It was fitting that the ‘Wonder Cabinet’, a public event at a trendy arthouse cinema in New York at the end of February, should have been opened by Lawrence Weschler, director of New York University’s Institute for the Humanities under whose auspices the affair was staged. For Weschler’s Pulitzer-shortlisted Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (1995) tells the tale of David Wilson’s bizarre Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, in which you can never quite be sure if the bizarre exhibits are factual or not (they usually are, after a fashion). And that was very much the nature of what followed in the ten-hour marathon that Weschler introduced.

Was legendary performance artist Laurie Anderson telling the truth, for instance, about her letter to Thomas Pynchon requesting permission to create an opera based on Gravity’s Rainbow? Expecting no reply from the famously reclusive author, she was surprised to receive a long epistle in which Pynchon proclaimed his admiration for his work and offered his enthusiastic endorsement of her plan. There was just one catch: he insisted that it be scored for solo banjo. Anderson took this to be a uniquely gracious way of saying no. I didn’t doubt her for a second.

The day had a remarkably high quota of such head-scratching and jaw-dropping revelations, the intellectual equivalent of those celluloid rushes in the movies of Coppola, Kubrick and early Spielberg. Even if you thought, as I did, that you know a smattering about bowerbirds – the male of which constructs an elaborate ‘bower’ of twigs and decorates it with scavenged objects to lure a female – seeing them in action during a talk by ornithologist Gail Patricelli of the University of California at Davis was spectacular. Each species has its own architectural style and, most strikingly, its own colour scheme: blue for the Satin Bowerbird (which went to great lengths to steal the researchers’ blue toothbrushes), bone-white and green for the Great Bowerbird. Some of these constructions are exquisite, around a metre in diameter. But all that labour is only the precursor to an elaborate mating ritual in which the most successful males exhibit an enticing boldness without tipping into scary aggression. This means that female choice selects for a wide and subtle range of male social behaviour, among which are sensitivity and responsiveness to the potential mate’s own behavioural signals. And all this for the most anti-climactic of climaxes, an act of copulation that lasts barely two seconds.

Or take the octopus described by virtual-reality visionary (and multi-instrumentalist) Jaron Lanier, which was revealed by secretly installed CCTV to be the mysterious culprit stealing the rare crabs from the aquarium in which it was kept. The octopus would climb out of its tank (it could survive out of water for short periods), clamber into the crabs’ container, help itself and return home to devour the spoils and bury the evidence. And get this: it closed the crab-tank lid behind it to hide its tracks – and in doing so, offered what might be interpreted as evidence for what developmental psychologists call a ‘theory of mind’, an ability to ascribe autonomy and intention to other beings. Octopi and squid would rule the world, Lanier claimed, if it were not for the fact that they have no childhood: abandoned by the mother at birth, the youngsters are passed on none of the learned culture of the elders, and so (unlike bower birds, say) must always begin from scratch.

All this orbited now close to, now more distant from the raison d’être of the event, which was philosopher David Rothenberg’s new book Survival of the Beautiful, an erudite argument for why we should take seriously the notion that non-human creatures have an aesthetic sense that exceeds the austere exigencies of Darwinian adaptation. It’s not just that the bower bird does more than seems strictly necessary to get a mate (although what is ‘necessary’ is open to debate); the expression of preferences by the female seems as elaborately ineffable and multi-valent as anything in human culture. Such reasoning of course stands at risk of becoming anthropomorphic, a danger fully appreciated by Rothenberg and the others who discussed instances of apparent creativity in animals. But it’s conceivable that this question could be turned into hard science. Psychologist Ofer Tchernichovski of the City University of New York hopes, for example, to examine whether birdsong uses the same musical tricks (basically, the creation and subsequent violation of expectation) to elicit emotion, for example by measuring in the song birds the physiological indicators of a change in arousal such as heartbeat and release of the ‘pleasure’ neurotransmitter dopamine that betray an emotional response in humans. Even if you want to quibble over what this will say about the bird’s ‘state of mind’, the question is definitely worth asking.

But it was the peripheral delights of the event, as much as the exploration of Rothenberg’s thesis, that made it a true cabinet of wonders. Lanier elicited another ‘Whoa!’ moment by explaining that the use of non-human avatars in virtual reality – putting people in charge of a lobster’s body, say – amounts to an exploration of the pre-adaptation of the human brain: the kinds of somatic embodiments that it is already adapted to handle, some of which might conceivably be the shapes into which we will evolve. This is a crucial aspect of evolution: it’s not so much that a mutation introduces new shapes and functions, but that it releases a potential that is already latent in the ancestral organism. Beyond this, said Lanier, putting individuals into more abstract avatars can be a wonderful educational tool by engaging mental resources beyond abstract reasoning, just as the fingers of an improvising pianist effortlessly navigate a route through harmonic space that would baffle the logical mind. Children might learn trigonometry much faster by becoming triangles; chemists will discover what it means to be a molecule.

Meanwhile, the iPad apps devised by engagingly modest media artist Scott Snibbe provided the best argument I’ve so far seen for why this device is not simply a different computer interface but a qualitatively new form of information technology, both in cognitive and creative terms. No wonder it was to Snibbe that Björk (“an angel”, he confided) went to realise her multimedia ‘album’ Biophilia. Whether this interactive project represents the future of music or an elaborate game remains to be seen; for me, Snibbe’s guided tour of its possibilities evoked a sensation of tectonic shift akin to that I vaguely recall now on being told that there was this thing on the internet called a ‘search engine’.

But the prize for the most arresting shaggy dog story went again to Anderson. Her attempts to teach her dog to communicate and play the piano were already raised beyond the status of the endearingly kooky by the profound respect in which she evidently held the animal. But when in the course of recounting the dog’s perplexed discovery during a mountain hike that death, in the form of vultures, could descend from above – another 180 degrees of danger to consider – we were all suddenly reminded that we were in downtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the decade-old hole in the financial district. And we suddenly felt not so far removed from these creatures at all.

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