cognitive biases and the search for meaning

Buster Benson wrote a Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet in 2016 and it’s worth a look:

Benson’s descriptions of various cognitive biases on wikipedia can be narrowed down to what he describes as four problems:

Problem 1: Too much information.
Problem 2: Not enough meaning.
Problem 3: Need to act fast.
Problem 4: What should we remember?

That is: a) “we don’t see everything”; b) “our search for meaning can conjure illusions”; c) “quick decisions can be seriously flawed”; d) “our memory reinforces errors”.

This might seem to have little to do with practice-as-research but I want to use problem 2 to share some ideas. In practice-as-research, we are in general dealing with experientially rich or “high-resolution” situations: think of complex the act of performing; or perhaps creating poetically detailed threads of meaning and metaphor in film. The conditions and conventions of PaR ask us to somehow make sense of those complexities or experientially rich situations: to search for and generate meaning. Often we do this through reading and para-phrasing theory to create or establish a way to understand what work our research (as practice) does. (I’m being deliberately crude or simplistic here). The danger is that in our desire to search for and find meaning, we simply conjure up texts and contexts that are less rich or what I could call “low-resolution”.

The trade-off between high-res experiences and practices and generating low-resolution texts or materials (such as materials of documentation) is a key problem in PaR.

scrivener on what might be

Stephen Scrivener’s work on epistemic concerns in practice-as-research has always been thoughtful, provocative and rewarding. See for example his work on the art object not embodying knowledge from 2002.[1]

In Scrivener’s contribution to Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research (2013) he develops a case-study based on the PhD research project by Su Zheng (2007) called Eye-Jump:

Like problem-solving design research, the work was directed toward a desirable future. However, problem-solving design research begins with an undesirable situation in the designed world that prompts reflection, for example, "Why is this artefactual situation not as it ought to be?" That is to say, the process begins with the recognition that there is something known: a better world, which has not been realised. The Eye-jump story, in contrast, began with making and thinking that was not attached to specific instances of undesirable life conditions; it was not concerned with what ought to be but with what might be. In a problem-solving research process a theory of the problem is transformed into a theory of its solution, which is then affirmed through the testing of a new design; material interventions are solely for the purposes of testing the solution theory. In contrast, the Eye-jump project progressed from untargeted material interventions, through unprecedented artefactual situation, to reflection on its potential significance.[2]

This is important for all practice-as-research, including those of us working in dance and performance. We are all involved in the question of what might be, and then part of our responsibility is to attempt to communicate why these things matter and to whom (i.e. the question of significance). Although artists working outside of the academy are likewise profoundly working with what might be they are under no pressure to talk to the significance of their work (although many do).

[1]: Indeed, all of Scrivener’s writing for the various "Working Papers in Art and Design" series are fantastic (they can be tracked down with a Duck Duck Go search).

[2]: Scrivener, Stephen, 2013. ‘Toward a Practice of Novel Epistemic Artefacts’, in: Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research, Orpheus Institute Series. Leuven University Press, Leuven, pp. 135–150. (excerpt from p.147)