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Acts That Amplify: Ann Hamilton on Art, the Creative Value of Unproductive Time, and the Power of Not Knowing

“It is the task of the artist to lead the leaders by staying at the threshold.”

The daily act of living is the act of chiseling destiny through choice — from the bedrock of all possible lives we could have had, we sculpt with our choices the one life we do have. Those choices can be difficult or easy, conscious or not, made for us or made by us, but whatever their nature, they require a leap into the unknown. “The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist,” Dani Shapiro wrote of the central task of the creative life, “is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.” Because every life is an act of self-creation, such is the job of each one of us, whether or not we self-identify as artists.

We choose whether to be blunted or honed when we choose whether to hide behind false certitudes — for any understanding that claims to be final is inherently fraudulent in its finality — or to thrust ourselves into the open air of not-knowing, naked and vulnerable, and wear our goosebumps like a constellation of tiny medals awarded us for living with courageous curiosity.

Artist Ann Hamilton, a rare philosopher of forms, celebrates that choice and the vitalizing power of not-knowing as the mightiest fuel for creative work in an extraordinary essay titled “Making Not Knowing,” adapted from her 2005 commencement address at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Ann Hamilton
Ann Hamilton

Hamilton writes:

One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going. In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know. You may set out for New York but you may find yourself as I did in Ohio. You may set out to make a sculpture and find that time is your material. You may pick up a paint brush and find that your making is not on canvas or wood but in relations between people. You may set out to walk across the room but getting to what is on the other side might take ten years. You have to be open to all possibilities and to all routes — circuitous or otherwise.

But not knowing, waiting and finding — though they may happen accidentally, aren’t accidents. They involve work and research. Not knowing isn’t ignorance. (Fear springs from ignorance.) Not knowing is a permissive and rigorous willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result, regarding as possible all manner of response. The responsibility of the artist … is the practice of recognizing.

Ann Hamilton, Untitled (body object series, 1984–1993
Ann Hamilton, Untitled (body object series, 1984–1993

Much of that recognition, Hamilton argues, happens in moments that bear no outward sign of productivity and yet invigorate the interiority of the imagination. In a fine addition to history’s greatest testaments to the creative purpose of boredom, Hamilton echoes German philosopher Josef Pieper’s countercultural case for why leisure is the basis of culture and writes:

Our culture has beheld with suspicion unproductive time, things not utilitarian, and daydreaming in general, but we live in a time when it is especially challenging to articulate the importance of experiences that don’t produce anything obvious, aren’t easily quantifiable, resist measurement, aren’t easily named, are categorically in-between.

Simultaneously with the invisible work of the mind and spirit, animating the creative life is the tangible work of the hands, which have their own way of knowing. Hamilton writes:

A life of making isn’t a series of shows, or projects, or productions, or things: it is an everyday practice. It is a practice of questions more than answers, of waiting to find what you need more often than knowing what you need to do. Waiting, like listening and meandering, is best when it is an active and not a passive state.

Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007
Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007

In a passage that calls to mind Willa Cather’s insight into the crucial difference between productivity and creativity, Hamilton considers the lacuna between making and doing — between what it means to make art and what art “does”:

I asked my ten-year-old son, Emmett, what he thought art was for and he said, “Nothing.” He said, “It isn’t good for anything.” And as he saw my eyes roll back in my head, thinking, this is what you get from a kid whose parents are both artists, he quickly added: “Art just is.” He said “Art just is” with an assumption that, like breakfast on the table, it will always be there — a given of a culture. In my head, I could hear a voice saying in response to his confidence: “Yes, but…” Can I really believe … that all the collective acts of making carry a weight that can counter the acts of unmaking that accrue daily? For acts of making to be acts of resistance and tools of remembering, this given-ness has to be made and maintained, and to have room made for it.

[…]

Every act of making matters. How we make matters. I like to remember, and remark with regularity, that the word “making” occupies seventeen pages in the Oxford English Dictionary, so there are multiple possibilities for a lifetime of making: make a cup, a conversation, a building, an institution, make memory, make peace, make a poem, a song, a drawing, a play; make a metaphor that changes, enlarges, or inverts the way we understand or see something. Make something to change your mind — acts that amplify.

Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007
Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007

With an eye to Emerson’s abiding and vitally disquieting wisdom — “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” — Hamilton cites the poet Ann Lauterbach and considers the essential awakening into which art unsettles us:

It is the task of the artist to make material form, to give it presence, to make it social; it is the task of the artist to lead the leaders by staying at the threshold; to be an unsettler in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our first public tricksters: “Let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no past.”

Complement with Georgia O’Keeffe’s kindred-spirited advice on what it means to be an artist, Marina Abramović’s manifesto for the artist’s life, and Mary Oliver on the artist’s task and the central commitment of the creative life.

BP

The Habits of Light: A Celebration of Pioneering Astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, Whose Calculations Proved That the Universe Is Expanding

“The universe is made of distance and of dust.”

The Habits of Light: A Celebration of Pioneering Astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, Whose Calculations Proved That the Universe Is Expanding

“Nothing is fixed. All is in flux,” physicist Alan Lightman wrote in his soaring meditation on how to live with our longing for absolutes in a relative universe, reminding us that all the physical evidence gleaned through millennia of scientific inquiry indicates the inherent inconstancy of the cosmos.

This awareness, so unnerving against the backdrop of our irrepressible yearning for constancy and permanence, was first unlatched when the ancients began suspecting that the Earth, rather than being the static center of the heavens it was long thought to be, is in motion, right beneath our feet. But it took millennia for the most disorienting evidence of inconstancy to dawn — the discovery that the universe itself is in flux, constantly expanding, growing thinner and thinner as stars grow farther and farther apart. In 1929, the astronomer Edwin Hubble built on the work of other scientists and formalized this in what is now known as Hubble’s Law — the first observational evidence for the ongoing expansion of the universe, which in turn furnished foundational evidence for the Big Bang model: If the universe is constantly expanding, to trace it backward along the arrow of time is to imagine it smaller and smaller, all the way down to the seeming nothingness that banged into the somethingness within which everything exists.

At the mathematical center of Hubble’s Law were the calculations of Henrietta Swan Leavitt (July 4, 1868–December 12, 1921) — one of the unheralded women astronomers, known as “the Harvard Computers,” who shaped our understanding of the universe long before they could vote. Leavitt’s particular work at the Harvard College Observatory was deemed so valuable that she was paid 20% more than the standard salary of the other computers: 25 cents per hour.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

At the inaugural edition of The Universe in Verse, artist Ann Hamilton brought Leavitt’s legacy to life in her lovely reading of the “The Habits of Light” from Aperture (public library) — a collection of poems by Anna Leahy, celebrating science and many of its unsung heroines. In her wonderful prefatory meditation, Hamilton builds on her animating ethos of not-knowing as a creative act to consider the common impulse driving poetry and science, and the vital role of embracing the unknown as we regard the universe within and without — please enjoy:

THE HABITS OF LIGHT
by Anna Leahy

After Henrietta Leavitt, astronomer

The difference between luminosity and brightness
is the difference between being

and being perceived, between the energy emitted
and the apparent magnitude. O, to be

significant! To have some scope and scale!
Size and heat. Why not make that obvious,

ostensible, stretch it out for all the world to see?
Distance makes a world of difference.

The universe is made of distance and of dust.
More dust than star out there,

more crimson than cobalt from here, looking,
our eyes telling the truth slant

through the almost-nothing
of the universe’s finely grained mattering.

The Universe in Verse — a celebration of science through poetry — returns in April of 2018. For more highlights from the 2017 edition, hear Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, Iron & Wine’s reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ode to Euclid, and my reading of Wisława Szymborska’s ode to the number pi, then watch the complete show for a two-hour poetic serenade to science.

BP

The Universe in Verse: Complete Show

An evening of poetry celebrating great scientists and scientific discoveries, read by beloved artists, writers, and musicians.

On April 24, 2017, I joined forces with the Academy of American Poets and astrophysicist Janna Levin to host The Universe in Verse at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works — an evening of poetry celebrating great scientists and scientific discoveries, and a protest against the silencing of science and the defunding of the arts, with all proceeds benefiting the Academy of American Poets and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To our astonishment and delight, this seemingly esoteric idea drew an ardent audience of 850 — our maximum capacity — who lined up around the block to hear readings by Amanda Palmer, Rosanne Cash, Janna Levin, Elizabeth Alexander, Diane Ackerman, Billy Hayes, Sarah Jones, Tracy K. Smith, Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York, and myself.

We celebrated pillars of science like Marie Curie, Euclid, Caroline Herschel, Oliver Sacks, the Harvard Computers, neutrinos, and the number pi, and read treasures like Adrienne Rich’s ode to women in astronomy, Campbell McGrath’s tribute to Jane Goodall, and the magnificent feminist poem about science Neil Gaiman wrote especially for the occasion.

Setting up for The Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works
Queue for The Universe in Verse

This magical evening, which ended in a standing ovation, was an immensely heartening project of collective goodwill — the show took me innumerable hours to put together and every single person involved, from the triple-Grammy-winning musician to the Pulitzer-winning poet to the camera crew, donated their time and talent so that we could lift hundreds of spirits and raise thousands of dollars for the perseverance of art and science.

After publishing some of the individual readings, the time has come to release the complete show, with hearty gratitude to Kickstarter Live and Kathryn Jones for the livestream and recording.

Prefacing each poem is my introduction of the reader, some curious facts about the scientist or discovery celebrated in the poem, and the reader’s brief reflection on her or his relationship to science and poetry. The poem playlist is below, with links to the individual poems where available — please enjoy:

  1. “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, read by Janna Levin
  2. “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith, read by the poet herself
  3. “Power” by Adrienne Rich, read by Rosanne Cash
  4. “The Venus Hottentot” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
  5. “Cosmic Gall” by John Updike from, read by Brandon Stanton
  6. “We Are Listening” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
  7. “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Emily Levine
  8. “For Oliver’s Birthday, 1997” by Steven Jay Gould, read by Billy Hayes
  9. “Euclid Alone Has Looked” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Sam Beam
  10. “Jane Goodall (1961)” by Campbell McGrath, performed by Sarah Jones
  11. “The Habits of Light” by Anna Leahy, read by Ann Hamilton
  12. “Address: The Archaeans, One Cell Creatures” by Pattiann Rogers, read by Jad Abumrad
  13. “Pi” by Wisława Szymborska, read by Maria Popova
  14. “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer

If you enjoyed this labor of love, please consider joining in the goodwill by supporting the Academy of American Poets and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as Pioneer Works who, like me, rely on patronage to continue doing what they do.

BP

The Mushroom Hunters: Neil Gaiman’s Feminist Poem About Science, Read by Amanda Palmer

An ode to humanity’s unheralded originators of the scientific method.

“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry,” the great astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, wrote in her diary in 1871. Nearly a century and a half later, I hosted The Universe in Verse in collaboration with astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin and the Academy of American Poets — an evening of poetry celebrating science and the scientists who have taken us to where we are today, and a kind of symphonic protest against the silencing of science and the defunding of the arts, with all proceeds donated to the Academy and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To our astonishment, eight hundred people poured into Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works and thousands watched the livestream of the sold-out show — a heartening testament to this seemingly unsuspected yet immensely fertile meeting point of science, poetry, and protest, featuring poems about Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Caroline Herschel, Euclid, neutrinos, and the number pi, by poets like Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Wisława Szymborska, read by beloved artists and writers, including Rosanne Cash, Diane Ackerman, Ann Hamilton, Brandon Stanton, Jad Abumrad, and Elizabeth Alexander.

Amanda Palmer with her reading as the audience packs into Pioneer Works (Photograph by Amanda Palmer)

The readings concluded with something very special: “The Mushroom Hunters,” a feminist poem about the dawn of science, written by the inimitable Neil Gaiman especially for this occasion and read by his wife, the ferocious musician, artist, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer — what a generous gift and what a perfect finale, tying together an evening whose unspoken yet deliberate theme was the often untold history of women in science. (The image I chose as the backdrop for Amanda’s reading of “The Mushroom Hunters” comes from children’s book author Beatrix Potter’s little-known yet revolutionary mycological work — another fragment in the canon of women’s underheralded contribution to science.)

Amanda Palmer

In this excerpt from the show, I frame the significance of the poem in the context of the evening and Amanda tells the story of its composition. (The isolated audio of the poem appears below the video.) Please enjoy.

And the poem by itself:

THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS

Science, as you know, my little one, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe.
It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.

In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains
designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,
to hurdle blindly into the unknown,
and then to find their way back home when lost
with a slain antelope to carry between them.
Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.

The women, who did not need to run down prey,
had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them
left at the thorn bush and across the scree
and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,
because sometimes there are mushrooms.

Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,
the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.
Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.

And sometimes men chased the beasts
into the deep woods,
and never came back.

Some mushrooms will kill you,
while some will show you gods
and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify.
Others will kill us if we eat them raw,
and kill us again if we cook them once,
but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,
and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,
only then can we eat them safely. Observe.

Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,
and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.

Observe everything.

And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk
and watch the world, and see what they observe.
And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,
While others clutched their stomachs and expired.
So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.

The tools we make to build our lives:
our clothes, our food, our path home…
all these things we base on observation,
on experiment, on measurement, on truth.

And science, you remember, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe,
based on observation, experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.

The race continues. An early scientist
drew beasts upon the walls of caves
to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms
and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.

The men go running on after beasts.

The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill
and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.
They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.

Photograph by Molly Walsh / Academy of American Poets

For more from The Universe in Verse, see astrophysicist Janna Levin’s stunning reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and playwright and actor Sarah Jones’s astonishing chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, based on a poem by Campbell McGrath.

For more of the gorgeous poetry performances I mention in introducing Amanda to the stage, hear her readings of “Protest” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, then join me in supporting the wonderful nonprofit artists’ space Pioneer Works so that they may continue to open their doors to such elevating events.

BP

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