Thursday, April 8, 2010

Not Exactly: In praise of vagueness, Kees van Deemter

In his book Not Exactly: In praise of vagueness, Kees van Deemter argues that the very foundations of science don't come in black and white. I spoke with him about seeing the world in shades of grey.

Forgive the oxymoron, but how do you define vagueness?

A vague concept allows borderline cases. The potential confusion is that people think vagueness is when they don't quite get what someone means.

For people in my area of logic, it's actually a much narrower phenomenon, such as the word "grey". Some birds are clearly grey, some are clearly not, while others are somewhere in between. The fact that such birds exist makes "grey" a vague concept. The vagueness does not arise from insufficient information: some concepts are fundamentally vague.

On the other hand, if I say that I have fewer than three children, that's not vague. In fact, it is the opposite, it is "crisp". It is true if I have zero, one or two children, and it is false if I have three or more.

Is vagueness anathema to science?

Put a magnifying glass to many scientific concepts and you find vagueness. Take the idea of "species". For centuries, biologists searched for crisp distinctions between species. A common definition today is to say that two animals only belong to the same species if they can interbreed. But if A can interbreed with B, and B with C, it doesn't always follow that A can interbreed with C.

Take the Ensatina salamander, which has six subspecies. Suppose subspecies A can interbreed with B, B with C, and so on until the end of the chain when F can no longer breed with A. Intuitively you want to say that they are all one species, but your criterion disagrees.

Should we give up on the concept?

The notion is incoherent, but biologists continue using it - with a pinch of salt. Richard Dawkins calls this tendency to think in discrete categories "the tyranny of the discontinuous mind".

So we think in discrete categories, but reality really isn't that way?

In the book I talk about a vintage racing car that has been repaired so many times that 70 years later only a few of the original parts remain. Is it the same car? The boundaries of objects are vague - and that goes for us, too. The average age of adult cells is 10 years. We are changing all the time.

Describing the world in terms of discrete objects is a useful fiction. Classical logic is discrete, too, based on binary dichotomies: yes/no, true/false. But that is not suited to thinking about the world's fundamentally vague things, which include some of the things science is based on, such as measurement. There is, for example, no such thing as a "perfect" metre, imperfect approximations are all we have. We should recognise we often need other forms of mathematical logic to describe the world.

How vague is everyday life?

Vagueness seeps in everywhere. We think we know what things like obesity or poverty are but they are context-based concepts. It can be a matter of life and death. We have laws prohibiting poisonous substances in food, say, but ask toxicologists what poisonous means, and all they give you is degrees of toxicity. Thresholds are arbitrary.

Is it ever important to be vague?

Doctors use vagueness all the time. For example, when researching for a project to automate messages about the condition of babies in intensive care, my colleagues found that doctors' written reports say things like: "heart rate OK most of the night, on the high side in the morning". The vagueness of the messages works in a very smart way - leaving out irrelevant details while adding a little bit of opinion. By calling the heart rate high, for example, they suggest there may be cause for worry.

For all these reasons, vagueness is crucial if you want to build computers and robots that communicate with people. If you want to understand or generate language, getting to grips with vagueness is key.

Will the web need vagueness?

As we move toward a semantic web where the formal representations are symbolic, the challenge is to figure out how to represent vague or gradable things, such as "affordable" housing or "ancient" monuments.

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Monday, April 5, 2010

Between the Diaspora and the Crinoline: An Interview with Bonnie Sherk, Linda Frye Burnham

Bonnie Sherk was the founding Director/President of Crossroads Community (The Farm) in San Francisco, 1974-1980. The Farm, located beneath a freeway interchange in the heart of the city, served as a series of community gathering spaces: a farmhouse with earthy, funky and elegant environments; a theater and rehearsal space for different art forms; a school without walls; a library; a darkroom; a pre-school; unusual gardens—all providing an indoor/outdoor environment "for humans and other animals." At the time of this interview, excerpted here, Sherk had just resigned as director of The Farm and was moving on to plans for more site-specific environments in the world of everyday life. —Eds.

Between the abstract and the meadow hurls the chaos.
Between the Diaspora and the crinoline sits the poem.

—Bonnie Sherk

Linda Frye Burnham: I guess one of the things everybody knows about The Farm is that it's a farm in the middle of a bunch of freeways. How did you find the site for it?

Bonnie Sherk: Well, there were several things that led me to this site. One thing has to do with when I was a child of about the age of six. There was this recurring dream that I had, that I loved to conjure up. It was the image of large, monolithic, technological, clanging forms. Inside of them would be growing a fragile flower, just a single flower. It was this incredible contrast that was very much a part of me, and I was fascinated by this image. I would literally conjure it up at night, and dream it. I don't know where it came from.

As an adult this kind of imagery was very normal for me to be working with. I was always aware of it. I was also very conscious of these buildings that were alongside this same freeway interchange, because I lived not too far from there. As I would drive by, I would see these buildings in the area. It was a very magical, mysterious place and always caught my attention.

During the period of late '73 and '74 I was interested in creating a public cafe environment. I was looking for a space where different kinds of artists and also nonartists could come together and break down some of the mythologies and prejudices between different genres, styles and cultural forms. All of this had to be connected with other species—plants and animals. It was very much a feeling that I had, a need to make things whole, to create situations through analogy. I was also working as The Waitress as a performance piece and a job. While I was looking for this space, at the restaurant, I met a musician who was interested in political theater. We started talking, and we both knew about this place, and decided to rent it. His name was Jack Wickert.

I felt that it was very important to create The Farm as a vehicle for connecting physical and conceptual fragments, for bringing together people of all ages from different economic and cultural backgrounds, people of different colors, and then people in relation to other species. The Farm was the product and process of hundreds of people. It emanated as part of a collective unconscious—a partial solution to urban and cultural error—some of which was specific to the site.

LFB: So you really had this grand design from the very beginning?

BS: Absolutely. You can look at the drawings that I made in 1974. The first proposal for The Farm was a drawing that I made, which shows the land (6.5 acres in all). Another element is that the buildings I had always looked at [during previous site-specific performance works] were adjacent to this four-and-a-half acre cement plaza, which had been the site of the Borden's Dairy Building. This —in relationship to the cluster of buildings, the freeway, the space in the middle of the freeway, which was about to be landscaped, and the four surrounding neighborhoods—was perfect to connect. The land fragments were owned by the city, state and private sources. The city-owned land was under the jurisdiction of several agencies. It was a true collage of spaces. It was also at the convergence of three hidden creeks, a magnet site of invisible energy. The timing was superb and The Farm was on its way.

I knew how to deal with the logistics of the project because of my work with the Portable Parks. At the time I did the Portable Parks, in 1970, I spent three months setting up the piece. It was a rehearsal for The Farm, because, with the Portable Parks, it was necessary for me to deal with certain established systems, communicate with them, and convince them of the rightness of the work. With The Farm, of course, the scale was much larger, but it didn't scare me because I had a sense of how to proceed and be effective.

I first contacted the Trust for Public Land, which was a fairly new organization, and was in the business of acquiring open space land for public use. I saw Huey Johnson, who's now the Secretary of Resources for the State of California. At that time he was President of the Trust. I brought the idea to him, the full plan, and he was fascinated with it, and so the TPL helped with the project. After two-and-a-half years of our work, the city did acquire the land. The land is currently being developed as a park with a rural feeling.

The creation of The Farm was an enormous series of simultaneous actions, which required hard work by many. On one level, I thought of it as a performance piece, but it was the performance of "Being." I was the "Administrator," "Politician," "Strategist," "Teacher," "Cook," "Designer," "Gardener," etc. In a sense, everyone who participated was a performer.

LFB: Can you describe The Farm as it was when it began? How many buildings. . . ?

BS: When it began it was completely barren. There was this four-and-a-half acre concrete plaza and a parking lot. There were these very dilapidated buildings with broken windows, boarded over and full of junk. The freeway interchange had just opened. In fact, part of the conception of the piece had to do with the unveiling of the interchange and the availability of public money. The city had just voted for there to be a fund for the acquisition of open space. Things were in synch. In a sense, it was very easy for certain aspects of The Farm to emerge as a concept because it was the right time. But it took incredible work and organization. Twenty-four hours a day was insufficient.

In many ways, some of the difficulties of The Farm had to do with the fact that it was also ahead of its time. In terms of concept, I was very interested, and still am interested, in creating works that relate simultaneously on many levels. For example, The Farm, to a large group, was merely a community center, where animals and plants and people could be together, with each art activity separate. I saw the total integration as a new art form: a triptych (human/plant/animal) within the context of a counter-pointed diptych (farm/freeway: technological/non-mechanized), etc. But it also exists on metaphoric and symbolic levels. Of course, most things do. Years earlier, I had done experiments and works with very common objects, and I noticed that the most common object often was the most mysterious.

LFB: Describe the different elements that went into The Farm and were part of it.

BS: I was very interested in framing life and creating a frame for the diversity as well as the similarities. Toward the end of my tenure at The Farm, I was developing mechanisms (programs) and environments that would extend the multicultural diversity of the neighborhoods to an international level. Structurally, I saw possibilities by using analogous cultural forms and creating whole experiences—actions connected to a place. I was even negotiating with Japanese businessmen to bring a 300-year-old Japanese farmhouse to the site.

LFB: Was it last year that you decided to resign as President and Conceptual Director of The Farm?

BS: In October of '80 I left The Farm after almost seven years, because I felt that it was time for me to move on and develop some new projects. One thing I've learned about myself is that I'm not a maintenance person; I'm an initiator. From the beginning I made a vow to myself to stay at The Farm as long as it was interesting and fulfilling and to leave when it no longer satisfied me—that's what I did.

I was beginning to get bogged down and bored with a lot of the demands of running this institution. There were bureaucratic structures that were not allowing for certain kinds of things that I wanted to happen. There was also a lack of money. I felt held back and had an incredible desire to travel and experience movement. I felt that it would also be better for The Farm to grow on its own terms without me. It was a major "letting go," and I felt very good about it. It also coincided with an exhibition in London that Lucy Lippard had invited me to participate in, and I created a piece called A Triptych Within a Triptych Within a Triptych Within the Context of a Counterpointed Diptych (Technological, Non-mechanized, Etc.). A very catchy title.

LFB: You can whistle it on the way home.

BS: It had to do with the theory and practice of art as a tool for cultural transformation and human survival. The theory has to do with using art as a mechanism for creating whole systems—experiential situations for cultural change. For the installation I created a preface and three exhibits, two of which, Exhibits A and B, demonstrated different kinds of art. Exhibit A was a documentation of The Farm. Exhibit B was a piece which had an indoor landscape with a table of accoutrements and incorporated the Queen's Park across the street as viewed through binoculars. It had many elements which were personal as well as symbolic, including "food for mice" and "food for thought." Exhibit C, which related to the practice of creating and experiencing art, was my letter of resignation from The Farm, with my right and left brain cards indicating my respective roles as President and Conceptual Director.

The practice was stated: "Between the abstract and the meadow hurls the chaos. / Between the Diaspora and the crinoline sits the poem." In many ways this piece was my completion piece for The Farm, and an analysis of my work for the past ten years, as well as being a thing in itself.

This interview originally appeared in High Performance magazine, Fall 1981.

Original CAN/API publication: September 2002

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