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Excerpt from Intersecting Sets

A story: a conference on arts policy. Rows of chairs are set out in the upper lobby of the Winspear Centre in Edmonton, a gracious contemporary concert hall. There’s the table at the front with four panellists lined up like judges at an assizes. There are the obligatory microphones and a shuffling trail of witnesses who want to testify. In the usual way of such events, the dialogue resembles particles popping in and out of existence in a cloud chamber – the remarks or questions from the audience members are directed at some point made several speakers/questions back. A smooth flow doesn’t emerge, though there is a random transfer of energy.

I was there waiting for my turn to get to the mike. A comment by one of the speakers had made me think of an article I had recently read in The Sciences – an analysis of Jackson Pollock’s abstract ‘drip’ paintings that demonstrated how intensely fractal his work is. His patterns scale similarly all the way from the smallest areas of the canvas to the largest. This is a kind of relationship that gives humans much pleasure – it’s the way small patches of cloud are similar in pattern to large ones, or small ripples of water to large waves. I want to say that discoveries like this are important to all artists and to arts policy-makers. Understanding the processes that drive the human mind to explore and enjoy is essential to connecting with an audience.

But I explained it badly. The panellists looked at me as though I was one of those eccentrics who pop up at public forums and ask about alien abduction. One of them responded by saying something like “I don’t need to understand how my brain works when I’m creating, any more than I need to understand how my computer works.”

I wanted to wrest the mic back from the person who had been standing patiently behind me and shout, “It does matter! And if that’s how you think about your brain, even your metaphors are out of date.”

“But the chatter had zoomed off to another part of the cloud chamber, to bemoan the lack of federal funding for the arts. I took my seat meekly. But the idea for this book was born back then, and I have been moving towards it in a crabwise fashion ever since.

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