︎The Creativity Lab︎Matthew Suttor︎The
Creativity Lab︎Matthew Suttor
Creativity Lab Rendering #5, Sewon Roy Kim, 2022.
The Creativity Lab
A space for play
I am establishing a new experimental art laboratory at CCAM. I am calling it the Creativity Lab, which is a preposterous name, but at the same time, freeing. The lab will be open to students, staff, and faculty from any discipline dedicated to observing the creative process through applied practice-based research and artmaking. We plan to explore big ideas: What is creative thinking? Can creativity be taught? And why do we so often get stuck?
What led me to found a lab? Over the twenty-two years I have been teaching students at Yale how to compose music, I have become increasingly curious about creative thinking: Am I teaching creativity, or is this just creative teaching? But where do I even begin to address these questions?
We might start with Albert Einstein, who offered what he believed to be “the essential feature in productive thought”: Combinatory play. In a 1945 response to a colleague’s inquiry about his mathematical process, Einstein wrote that before language and symbols comes a state that he described as combinatory play, whereby elements in thought can be “‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined.” I understand combinatory play as a free-associative process, like Einstein—thinking without thinking—while playing his violin. As a teacher, I know that when students rush to get to achieve finished results before a period of play, the results are often awkward. In this cognitive mode, Einstein intuited connections and bridges between things, such as mass and energy, where others saw only chasms.
Einstein was a super-observer, offering another lead in our investigation of creativity. Here, I believe, we have an opportunity to reexamine the near-meaningless terms and catchphrases we use to engage in creative thinking such as brainstorming, thinking outside the box, and—case in point for this edition of Maquette—serendipity. Serendipity has come to mean a happy accident, whereas the original meaning of the term, coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, identified those with superpowers of observation—a learnable skill rather than dumb luck. And thanks to Einstein, combinatory play offers us insight into how we might practice observation.
What does the Creativity Lab look like physically? As a radical reimagining of a lab in a university, the Creativity Lab is a combination of seminar room, performance space, gallery, and laboratory. In this sense, the lab is an architectural expression of combinatory play. Along with creative and research projects, my pedagogical approach will be to offer modular programs instead of semester-long courses to support learning that might be difficult to find in other programs, departments, and schools. At the Creativity Lab, you might discover a bridge where there would otherwise be a chasm.
Einstein intuited connections and bridges between things, such as mass and energy, where others saw only chasms.︎
Here are two examples of projects I am currently working on at CCAM that are born of the arts-science collaborations of the sort that the Creativity Lab might develop:
The first is an opera about Alan Turing, titled I AM ALAN TURING. The project brings together music, drama, and computer science. The libretto for the opera is being devised by a group of collaborators, one of whom happens to be an AI. In the opera, any character may or may not be Alan Turing. In this way, the opera itself is a giant Turing Test.
The second project maps collective animal behavior, such as fish schooling and flocking birds, onto musical parameters. The collective animal behavior project brings together music, biodiversity science, and data science, drawing researchers from the Max Planck - Yale Center for Biodiversity Movement and Global Change with composers and visual artists to investigate threatened ecosystems through the sonification and visualization of data.
In addition, the Creativity Lab is ideally positioned to launch a longitudinal study of creativity through such arts-science projects at Yale. While it’s not surprising to ask questions about the creative process in the arts, I am particularly interested in specific populations in the sciences, including graduate students, post-doctoral students, and early-career scientists. What does creative thinking mean to them? How do they get themselves unstuck? Have they experienced combinatory play as Einstein describes it?
But why involve scientists at all in an experimental art lab? Artist residencies in scientific labs are nothing new, such as the artist-in-residence at the Yale Quantum Institute. Let’s flip that model around. I propose scientists come to us, the artists, to investigate their ideas. CCAM, as Yale’s media lab for everyone, is an ideal meeting place for the arts and sciences. Cognition, after all, comes from the Latin co- (“together”) + gnoscere (“to know”). The Creativity Lab might be a place to get us out of our silos and encourage a symbiotic relationship between our various workplaces and disciplines. The beauty of CCAM is that it is an archipelago of collaborative initiatives; labs that have outcomes but are not outcome-driven.
I propose scientists come to us, the artists, to investigate their ideas.︎I propose scientists come to us, the artists, to investigate their ideas.︎
When CCAM Director Dana Karwas and I first spoke about the Creativity Lab, we mulled over the idea of having it situated in the computer room at CCAM. Except: This is a drab, windowless room. Karwas then suggested that we ask Sewon Roy Kim, a student at the School of Architecture, to create a conceptual rendering of the lab. I sent him photographs of student whiteboard exercises around combinatory play from past classes to give him some context, and Kim chose to focus on one from 2016, in which the name Shakespeare appeared. In response, he produced images like theatrical sets, with “Shakespeare” splayed across the floor. I was stunned; the renderings reminded me of the first Shakespeare play I composed the score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, way back in New Zealand, during the summer of 1991. The production was outdoors, and the set looked like a skateboarding halfpipe. A connection from then to now, dreamed up by someone I barely knew. A happy coincidence? No—this is precisely the kind of discovery through observation that Horace Walpole intended to capture through his invention of the word serendipity.
There are, of course, many astonishing books that offer immediately useful tools already in the public sphere written by leading scientists, such as Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross, the experimental psychologist at the University of Michigan. There is also a staggering amount of work in cognitive science, neuroscience, and data science done in research labs that will take years to reach the public. The Creativity Lab can be that play space to make their work more widely accessible to the benefit of all. We need a place at Yale to test out their ideas on thinking through artmaking.
In his 1939 essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” the educator and founder of the Institute for Advanced Study, Abraham Flexner, argued for a place where “the pursuit of these useless satisfactions proves unexpectedly the source from which undreamed-of utility is derived.” Given the level of distraction, anxiety, and competition in our daily lives—not to mention enormous societal and environmental changes—it is imperative to have a place to explore ideas without those ideas sanctioned as “useful.” The Creativity Lab might be a place to work outside of your discipline, to take risks. A lab for the arts and sciences to unite with nothing more than curiosity in mind. The Creativity Lab, then, might then be a saving intervention for some; for others, a place to start.