• On Closing a Loop - Disciplinarity and Openness 

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    Posted: 25 November 2009

    By Joost Rekveld: Head of the ArtScience Interfaculty of the Royal Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.

    Openness and its closed side

    In the second half of the 20th century there has been much talk about openness. During WWII, Karl Popper developed his concept of the ‘Open Society’, describing the mechanism of free exchanges of opinion a society needs in order to make maximum development possible of the talents of the individuals in it. A couple of years later, theoretical biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy coined the term ‘Open System’: a system being a whole that is defined by the organisation of its parts, it can be called open if matter and energy flow through it. In again a very different field, Umberto Eco formulated the idea of the ‘Open Work’, a work of art that is in some explicit way not finished until it is complemented by choices made by the viewer. And, finally, Dutch composer and philosopher Dick Raaijmakers coined the term ‘Open Form’ for a method of collaborative composing.

    Even though these concepts come from very different fields and are difficult to compare, one can say that they were all formulated against opponents that were perceived as being closed in some way or another. The adversaries in these examples were totalitarian regimes, classical physics, the traditional artwork or the hierarchical pecking order of composer, musicians and audience. These new concepts were seen as an act of ‘opening’ an existing, closed situation and focus on aspects for which there had not been room until then. In some of these cases, opening what was previously closed was a destructive act, an attempt to at least partly destroy a tradition and make room for an emerging alternative.

    The idea of openness presupposes a shared space, and if there has been criticism of the ideas mentioned above, it has been mostly leveled at this point. The Athenian democracy did not apply to the many slaves in Athens and there are still large groups that do not take part in the open society advocated by Popper. An open society needs a level playing field. The Open Form and the Open Work need a fair bit of common ground shared by collaborators and audience in order to function. This common ground cannot be open and solid at the same time.

    It is no coincidence that artists’ utopias in this period are very striking images of a similar openness in the form of a shared space. ‘New Babylon’ of Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys is a huge superstructure spanning the whole earth in which all mankind has become nomadic. Space belongs to nobody and permanent ties like family and tribe have been replaced by fleeting friendships. Yves Klein’s ‘Eden’ also covers the whole earth, this time with a roof of compressed air. The machinery to support this roof and all other basic functions are invisible in technical rooms underground. Mankind has been liberated of weather and other constraints, so we can play and wander around without clothes. In the utopian imagery of Superstudio, mankind is also nomadic, but this time on a huge grid. This grid delivers power and information and everybody can plug in anywhere.

    The common ideals of multi-, inter- and transdisciplinarity also imply some kind of common ground. Projects can certainly be interesting if disciplines are enriched by the contact with other disciplines, but I would like to present two images that capture the down-to-earth reality of many of these projects. One image is that of the round table with a hole in the middle; representatives of various disciplines sit around this table, the hole remains empty and the disciplines themselves are not questioned. The second image has become very common: many organisations have an office for interdisciplinary affairs in the same corridor as the offices for the traditional disciplines. Just as in the other offices, a specialised language is spoken in the office for interdisciplinary affairs, which sets it apart from the rest.

    Closure and autodisciplinarity
    The closed underside of openness is perhaps most clearly visible in the case of the open system. The idea of an open system was a big step in differentiating self-sustaining organisations, like living organisms, from the closed systems studied in classical physics. The very use of the term ‘open’ presupposes an outside view of such systems. Critics say that such a view, and the idea of ‘openness’ in itself, does not explain or address those aspects of systems that make them self-sustainable.

    In 1909 the biologist Jacob von Uexküll was interested in describing the world of different animal species in their own terms. In order to achieve this, he developed several concepts, amongst which the idea of ‘Umwelt’. He defined the outer world of an animal by looking at the feedback loop consisting of the perceptions and actions of the animal in question. In his view, the perceptions of animals are triggers for its actions. The totality of possible triggers for actions constitutes the sensory world of the particular animal. In this way, he was the first to describe epistemology in terms of a feedback loop through mind, actions, world and perceptions. With this concept he could point out the huge differences between the worlds of different species and rejected the idea that our human world is somehow privileged. He was a precursor of cybernetics, biosemiotics, second-order cybernetics and especially the idea of autopoiesis formulated by Maturana and Varela in the early seventies.

    An autopoietic system is a system that sustains itself, which produces the components that it needs to keep functioning, and which defines its relations with its own world in the sense of von Uexküll. It survives by maintaining its own feedback loop, a concept that is associated with the term ‘closure’. Armed with this term, we can now see that the openness I discussed in the first half of this text is only possible on the basis of a shared closure of some sort. The term ‘closure’ has been applied to many types of organisation, and it might be interesting to think about what loop a new type of research organisation needs to close in order to be sustainable. That question is beyond the scope of this essay and it might become an academic exercise to answer it by making such direct comparisons. I do think that the concept of ‘closure’ sheds an interesting light on the question of interdisciplinarity.

    The biggest disadvantage of terms like multi-, inter- and transdisciplinarity is that they try to describe something new as a special arrangement of the old. If we look at the appearance of novelty, however, it rarely comes out of such combinatoric activity. An example: for more than two thousand years, all of mathematics was based on the foundations that were first written down in Euclid’s Elements of Mathematics. In the nineteenth century it was discovered that alternatives to Euclid’s fifth postulate (about parallel lines) generated parallel geometries that were also consistent. The whole new universe of non-Euclidean mathematics was not opened by rearranging known parts, but by postulating alternative ones.

    With the term ‘autodisciplinarity’ I would like to propose yet another disciplinary word that I hope helps to think about structures for new kinds of activity. It resembles all kinds of self-referential things that are commonly thought not to be possible, such as lifting oneself up by pulling ones own hair or pulling ones bootstraps. In a similar vein it can be thought that riding a bicycle is impossible: it is impossible to achieve speed without maintaining balance by steering, and it is impossible to steer without having speed. As seen from an armchair, riding a bike is clearly an impossible task.

    Joost Rekveld (1970) has been making abstract films and light installations for about twenty years, originally starting out on the basis of the idea of visual music for the eye. His installations developed from the tools he developed to make his films, often inspired by the less frequented byways in the history of science and technology. His interest in the spatial aspects of light triggered a shift away from the screen, towards more architectural and theatrical work. At the moment he is increasingly implicated in activities that resemble cybernetics, artificial life and robotic architecture.

    His films have been shown worldwide at a broad range of festivals and venues for experimental, animated or otherwise short films. He has collaborated on many theatre projects and as a curator he has put together numerous programmes on the history of abstract animation and light art. Since 2008 he is the head of the ArtScience Interfaculty of the Royal Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.


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