Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Art also plays a role in all of this, but for now....

I am still trying to absorb the implications of the Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal functioning as the keynote speaker at the Symposium on Compassion Meditation on the second day of the Dalai Lama's visit to Emory and at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in ten days' time, both events following his October 17 New York Times op-ed "Morals Without God":
—an essay copiously illustrated by images from Hieronymus Bosch, incidentally.

The Dalai Lama, as one might expect, was fascinated with the notion that empathy exists in species that have the mirror-recognition capacity (i.e., the capacity to recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability thus far discovered in dolphins, elephants, apes, and humans) and wanted to know if self-recognition and empathy was possible in other species. De Waal opined that dogs seem to have a certain empathic capacity without the mirror-recognition facility, and certain birds, suggesting that the link between avian and mammalian species would be the reptilian, where crocodiles share the capacity for proto-empathy in that they nurture their offspring. (There was much else said about all this, some of it leading one audience member to remark that they could have used an evolutionary biologist up there among the psychologists and primatologists, to straighten out the details of which species possessed which capacities and why.)

The keynote address to the AAR will also be on empathy in mammalian species, the subject of de Waal's latest book. The panel discussion was on how empathy evolves into actively self-aware compassion in human beings and whether there are practices that can heighten compassion by inducing changes in brain physiology.

The Dalai Lama's visit was inaugurated with the presentation of four new science textbooks from the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a project to make all 20,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns literate in the basics of contemporary scientific disciplines. Paging through the new books on Evolution, Cells and Genes, and, I believe, brain physiology (I didn't see two of the four titles), I reflected that this was uncompromisingly serious material, introductory but not oversimplified, and that I rather wished I could buy copies and refresh my own knowledge with the English text on the left-hand pages.

The most promising candidates from the monasteries will be sent to Emory to pursue advanced study in physics, psychology, et al., having completed the advanced course of study in Tibetan Buddhist academic institutions. The intent is to create an intensive dialogue between Tibetan Buddhist knowledge of the mind and body and the scientific disciplines as presently constituted in world society.

The Dalai Lama was once again fascinated by the results of experiments conducted with compassion meditation techniques in terms of measurable changes in the amygdala and other physiological as well as psychological results. The aforementioned skeptic in the audience suggested that at the very least the variables of age and cultural experience of the research subjects should have been factored into the experiments.

Whatever one thinks of the adequacy of the experimental parameters (and it seemed to me that the mere fact that the research subjects were motivated to enroll in the experiment was a variable to be considered, though control groups given standard cognitive-psychology methods were used as well as meditators), what seemed most significant was the fact that three different universities (Stanford, Wisconsin, and Emory) have considered secularized forms of Tibetan meditation worthy of study as behavioral modification techniques measurably affecting brain physiology, and that the spiritual head of the world's Tibetan Buddhists was eager to absorb any and all such materially based insights into the structure of Buddhist education.

The outcome of the scientific education of 20,000 practitioners of a sophisticated Buddhist system of psychological education and theoretical debate will be fascinating to witness. Leafing through the textbook on evolution, I found myself thinking that standard Buddhist notions regarding conditioned origination would be reinforced by the shifting degrees of reproductive success found in changing environmental circumstances. The Dalai Lama has pointed out that the Buddha insisted that when a doctrine has been found to be contradicted by the facts, it must be discarded. Thus traditional Tibetan cosmology is to be replaced by contemporary models of the universe, for example.

At the same time, what John Blofeld wrote some decades ago regarding Tibetan Buddhism still obtains: the practice is culturally specific, even though it encodes a level of psychological insight that Blofeld had not discovered elsewhere. He was fearful to discard what seemed to be extraneous aspects, lest they turn out to contain some key element he didn't understand was such. This hasn't changed among American adherents.

Thus at the North American seat of Drepung Loseling monastery, there are an impressive array of teachings and empowerment ceremonies by visiting Tibetan spiritual teachers, all of them arisen from the circumstances of a culture at the far end of the Silk Road where practices and beliefs from Isfahan and Alexandria mingled with those of India and Central Asia. The cultural differences matter; for example, the colors of the robes that were meant to make the monks physically unattractive to laypersons turn out to be enormously appealing to American audiences. There are issues of cultural collision and fusion to be addressed that lie beyond the immediate challenge of reconfiguring Tibetan Buddhism for its historic adherents while preserving the essence of Tibetan culture in the diaspora. (A two-day conference on this latter topic is in progress as I write this.)

But the experiment of bringing a formerly isolated spiritual practice into the twenty-first century is one that raises so many compelling intellectual and existential issues that I am truly delighted to see it taking place. These confrontational times scarcely seem propitious for the rise of a radical religious empiricism, but that is what seems to be evolving at a speed I wouldn't have thought possible.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Antakya weighs in with its 2nd biennial

Having missed the 1st Antakya Biennial altogether except as a concept, I am thrilled to learn of the second one. Antakya is one of those contested cities and districts whose history fascinates me. Under its colonial name of Hatay, the district found its way in fictionalized form into one of the Indiana Jones films, but its actual history is as improbable in its own fashion as anything in Indiana Jones. Today the city is undergoing the same transformations and tensions of globalization as anyplace else.

What interests me also is that there are fewer international artstars than one has come to expect (Renzo Martens and Cyprian Gaillard head the list); most of the artists in the biennial are Turkish, but the international co-curator alongside the one from Istanbul is a Bulgarian living in Brussels, who is organizing parallel events for the Biennial in Sofia and Brussels. (That both curators are female is no longer an event out of the ordinary; neither is the notion of a curator from one country living in another, but the mix of regionality and trans-European location is intriguing to an untraveled provincial like myself. We are used to the same fifteen curators being brought in with great fanfare rather than a just short of homegrown international biennial that nevertheless undertakes its own brand of border crossings.)

Here is an extract from regarding the biennial, which seems to be addressed simultaneously to the citizens of Antakya and to a global public (but not particularly to a global artworld, most of which will most likely ignore the event):

"'Thank you for your understanding' is the title of a work by artist Simon Kentgens, which will be shown in the 2nd Antakya Biennial. It refers to the signs we often see in the city, when public or private interventions obstruct our common spaces.

"In the context of Antakya, 'Thank you for your understanding' is a way to address the relationship between the city and its inhabitants, but also between the biennial and its local public, as a mutual effort for understanding and working together. More generally, 'Thank you for your understanding' explores the im/possibilities of finding a common ground on which we can stand as public - both in the exhibition and in the city.

"Today, our world remains fragmented and our individual efforts dispersed behind the unifying fa├žade of globalization. Discovering what could be truly common means finding solidarities and shared sensibilities that are not based on the reigning form of universality today: capitalism. In the 18th century, aesthetics seemed to promise such an alternative - a universal common ground or "common sense." For Kant it was in beauty that such a common sense was to be found. Even though beauty in the classical sense is not a category we would assign to art today, can we nevertheless take this example and imagine art as proposing such an alternative common space, a commonality beyond the market?

"Starting from the aesthetic grounds of our common existence, the Biennial will focus on the particular case of Antakya as a city in the process of rapid globalization and transformation. The city as the spatial model of the way society is organized and functions today is one of our common grounds of experience as human beings. Following David Harvey we will claim that the question of what kind of city we want cannot be separated from what kind of people we want to be and what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. Therefore the remaking of ourselves through changing the city is one of our most fundamental, human rights.

"Finally, the Biennial will experiment with its own form as a global, temporary, exportable structure. Instead of negating its role as a universalizing agent, the Antakya Biennial will try to challenge it specifically by offering a common space for both international artists and the local public."

The description I have since found at confirms my beliefs regarding the biennial's intentions (and provides much better information regarding Antakya's condition as a zone of multiple cultures, religions and languages):
"Antakya is a place where the streets and even the shops still do little to encourage a hectic consumerism. The banks of the river and the hills outside the town offer benches to contemplate the view but no cafes or restaurants to capitalize on it. The many historical and architectural sites continue to be part of the daily urban life and cultural heritage programs have not yet turned the city into a museum. The only museum has no shop and it is even difficult to find postcards from Antakya. However the city culturally, socially, spatially and economically going through a rapid transformation. A new airport is being constructed, most of the big old houses are being turned into hotels, each day a new souvenir shop or tourism office is being opened instead of small ateliers and etc. Just recently a big shopping mall construction has started in the outskirt of the city, which will definitely change the social, and public life of the inhabitants and understanding of the public space. And inevitably these transformations are followed by gentrification process (or we should say concurrently) in the city center and Antakya Biennial is also a result/part of this transformation. The Antakya biennial finds itself in between the needs and ambitions of the growing and developing city, and the foreign, often nostalgic, gaze. But between the drive towards globalization and its reverse but inherent demand for local difference, is there something of the old universal we can rescue, some common ground that can unite us, while still respecting all particularities?

"...the 2nd Antakya Biennial is aiming to explore the social and cultural structure of today’s society through Antakya and build a discussion platform for Antakya inhabitants to question these changes and to invite them to take an active part in remaking the city—in other words remaking themselves....

"The biennial will also expand internationally and each of its editions will collaborate with different partner countries. In 2010 these are Belgium, Holland and Bulgaria. Under the umbrella of Antakya Biennial, parallel events co-organized with local institutions will take place in Brussels, Amsterdam and Sofia. They will extend the questions we pose in Antakya and confront them to different local contexts.

"Antakya Biennial is the sole international art exhibition in the region. As a result it has a stronger impact on the locality than most other biennials. This is why Antakya biennial proposes a structure that is much more locally oriented. Such a structure will be a more challenging but less standardized framework for the collaboration of local and international artists and organizations on the grounds of the biennial. However, Antakya biennial is not simply a "regional" event. Instead we see the biennial as a global laboratory for artistic and intellectual exchange that has its starting point in the local situation of Antakya but reaches out and exchanges experiences with other locations since the specifics to Antakya mimics the global transformation."

It will be interesting to learn how the citizens of Antakya respond to this highly public presentation of contemporary art. Since two of my friends are fluent in Turkish, I suppose I could find out in detail.

Monday, October 11, 2010

In lieu of the much more ambitious things I wanted to post

It would be good if all of us knew our specific neurological deficits. There are so many ways of being miswired that most of us are compensating for lacks, and also using additional capacities, that we don’t even know we have.

I suspect that curators and specific types of artists don’t get along because they view the world differently…not that they are differently acculturated, they just don’t see the same things the same way even when they are using the same language.

It would take entirely too much time to unpack the meaning of this proposition. It isn’t particularly materialist-reductionist, but it seriously modifies the social-reductionist side of things.

Perhaps the point is that nothing can ever be reduced to anything else. Far from being explicable by simpler causes (although we do like to disguise the causes that embarrass us or that we don’t even wish to know), we are usually so encapsulated in our own imprisoning partial viewpoints that we don’t even understand what it is we don’t understand.