"In Sight of Eureka": TATSOI, curiosity and flow
I have spent the last month or so working on my thesis, which is a case study on last year’s Dublin City of Science. This year, that festival has evolved into the 4-day long Festival of Curiosity. Throughout the festival I have been taking notes and making connections between my research and my actual experience, and wondering what to do with these new thoughts as they don’t really fit into my thesis. So instead, on the last day of the festival, I will put them down here.
The first interesting thing I noticed was a connection I made was with a psychological text I read, and TATSOI’s In Sight of Eureka response. The text is Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Flow, according to Csikszentmihaly, is that intense mindspace that happens when you focus on a task so intensely that you’re in a unique creative zone. That task is something that you do for the sake of it being done, and when conducting that task a person experiences a sense of self-fulfillment. He refers to a number of professions where this happens: solo endurance activities by athletes, artists in their studios and scientists in their labs are some of the examples.
It’s this similarity between artists and scientists that I found so fascinating. And so, a day after reading this book, I went to watch Una Kavanagh from TATSOI (That’s About the Size of It) perform In Sight of Eureka at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios. In the piece, an audio track is playing in the background which consists of 35 people being interviewed about ‘eureka’ moments in their lives and professions while Una paints her response to the audio. In addition to those interviews was one with Professor Ian Robertson, who has recently conducted research on curiosity and novelty and their effects on the brain.
As I watched the performance, suddenly the concept of ‘flow’ clicked into place. Right there in front of me was ‘flow’: There was the artist, on hands and knees, stopping, pausing, throwing material around, crouching, staring, contemplating. The act of making that artwork in front of an audience was physical, but also a mental marathon. Una had created that almost palpable bubble, where in that room there was only the audio, her tools, and her body.
Una Kavanagh of TATSOI performing In Sight of Eureka
The second thing that I found really interesting was the aspect of an audio soundtrack to a work of visual art. Though the only sound should have been what was playing in the background, the natural soundtrack of the room and of Temple Bar added to the piece. In TATSOI’s other In Sight of Eureka project (an GPS-based app that guides you through Temple Bar giving you clips from the audio interviews as you walk along) their aim was to literally situate science within the Temple Bar Cultural Quarter through an audio experience. Funnily enough, it was the performance event that I was witnessing that in my opinion did that even more. There were the interviews playing in the background; there was the sound of Una’s paintbrush sweeping across the canvas; there was the father sitting next to me explaining what calligraphy was to his son; there was the impossibly loud buskers just outside the building; and there were the sounds of tourists and Dubliners pushing their way through the wet cobblestones of Temple Bar.
In that one room it all came together in a concentrated cacophony of people’s lives, thoughts and experiences. Curiosity was there in Prof. Ian Robertson’s audio track, but also in the questions children were asking their parents in the room. Novelty and newness was there as we watched a completely new and original piece of work being created before our eyes, as well as in what we as an audience were experiencing. Flow was there, pulsating in Una’s mind and traveling out through her hands onto blank canvasses, and I felt that by watching it I became a part of it.
Finally, the last thing I noticed about the festival was this idea of ‘eureka’, that moment of enlightenment that can often be related to ‘flow’. Last night, at Dara O’Briain’s ‘Curious Stories’ event, Niamh Shaw from TATSOI was on stage as part of a panel when the topic of ‘Eureka’ moments came up. Each panelist described their moment of of discovery and clarity, with some talking about their personal process and some talking more generally. When the legendary Jocelyn Bell, who discovered pulsars in her 20’s, talked about her moment of discovery, I got chills. As she described the feeling on turning on a 4-acre large telescope and finding out that, after all that research and labour, that it worked, I could almost feel that sense of anticipation and excitement followed by victorious, euphoric relief. Everyone on the panel seemed to experience this moment in different ways, depending on their disciplines and experiences. With some, there was always a sense of trepidation as their research gets gradually approved of by other scientists. But in every description, there was that sense of a buzz, of victory, no matter how small, and that feeling of “yes! I’m on the right track!.”
Walking out of that event, I was talking a mile-a-minute and experiencing this incredible high. I had not only witnessed some amazing conversations with amazing people on that stage, but I also got to know some amazing people as part of my research. The more I hear about science and art-science collaborations, the more my heart races and my mind buzzes with new ideas and connections. After two Art History degrees and years of working in various fine art sectors, I suddenly felt something click. The relationships between art and science have always been an interest of mine, but only now have I taken it to an actual academic level. Maybe I owe it to my parents for buying me both chemistry kits and paintbrushes, and letting me cover my walls with Impressionist prints and science posters. Maybe it was my interdisciplinary undergraduate degree. But most of all it’s events like the Festival of Curiosity where art and science collide, where I can immerse myself in a world where ideas and conversations fire back and forth across disciplines, creating new concepts, relationships and ideas. For the first time in a while I felt like I was one step closer to what I’m supposed to be doing for the rest of my life. Perhaps that buzz was trying to tell me that I’m finally on the right track. Perhaps I am just about in sight of ‘eureka’.