[top image:  Leonardo da Vinci, Study for the Sforza Monument, c.1488-89. Photo by Plum leaves, via Flickr…

When da Vinci applied for a job at the court of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, he emphasized his engineering practice by listing the things he could build: portable bridges, water-supply systems, even cannons that could hurl rocks “like a hailstorm.” But his most audacious proposal for the duke was a 79-ton bronze horse, what would be the largest equestrian statue in the world. The Italian polymath presented a 24-foot clay model to Sforza in 1493, but his plans were cut short when French troops overran Milan the following year. The bronze for da Vinci’s horse was instead used to make weapons; his clay model shattered in 1499 when enemy archers used it for target practice. Nearly 500 years later, a retired American pilot took it upon himself to finish what da Vinci had started—a project that resulted in two massive bronze horses inspired by the Old Master’s design, one in Milan, the other in Michigan.. via These 10 Unrealized Artworks Would Have Been Spectacular By Abigail Cain]

Ursula K. Le Guin, Keynote 5/8/14

Anthropocene:  Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Santa Cruz, California
May 8-10, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin on Imagination:

In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.

I hear voices agreeing with me. “Yes, yes!” they cry. “The creative imagination is a tremendous plus in business! We value creativity, we reward it!” In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. This reduction has gone on so long that the word creative can hardly be degraded further. I don’t use it any more, yielding it to capitalists and academics to abuse as they like. But they can’t have imagination.

Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it, and their use, or non-use, depends on it, as with all tools and their uses. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.

Le Guin observes that like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it — or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Storytelling, she argues, is the sandbox in which we learn to use the imagination:

Children have imagination to start with, as they have body, intellect, the capacity for language: things essential to their humanity, things they need to learn how to use, how to use well. Such teaching, training, and practice should begin in infancy and go on throughout life. Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

When children are taught to hear and learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

Karen Barad –  On Touching— The Inhuman That Therefore I Am

Theorizing, a form of experimenting, is about being in touch. What keeps theories alive and lively is being responsible and responsive to the world’s patternings and murmurings. Doing theory requires being open to the world’s aliveness, allowing oneself to be lured by curiosity, surprise, and wonder. Theories are not mere metaphysical pronouncements on the world from some presumed position of exteriority. Theories are living and breathing reconfigurings of the world. The world theorizes as well as experiments with itself. Figuring, reconfiguring. Animate and (so-called) inanimate creatures do not merely embody mathematical theories; they do mathematics. But life, whether organic or inorganic, animate or inanimate, is not an unfolding algorithm. Electrons, molecules, brittlestars, jellyfish, coral reefs, dogs, rocks, icebergs, plants, asteroids, snowflakes, and bees stray from all calculable paths, making leaps here and there, or rather, making here and there from leaps, shifting familiarly patterned practices, testing the waters of what might yet be/have been/could still have been, doing thought experiments with their very being.

Thought experiments are material matters. Thinking has never been a disembodied or uniquely human activity. Stepping into the void, opening to possibilities, straying, going out of bounds, off the beaten path— diverging and touching down again, swerving and returning, not as consecutive moves but as experiments in in/determinacy. Spinning off in any old direction is neither theorizing nor viable; it loses the thread, the touch of entangled beings (be)coming together-apart. All life forms (including inanimate forms of liveliness) do theory. The idea is to do collaborative research, to be in touch, in ways that enable response-ability.

FANTASY ART NOW edited by Swimmers Group (Sebastian Frye and Jay Isaac) [read excerpt]

We were in Westfjords, in the far north west of Iceland, floating naked in a pool of volcanic hot water, looking over the fjord mouth into the grey Arctic Sea dotted with icebergs. On the far arm of the fjord, the midnight sun was slowly creeping over the icy crags shooting fuchsia beams onto the pods of ocean icebergs. Some of the icebergs had a dusting of black volcanic ash. It was 3:00 am, and we had been driving our rental Skoda all day. We were still wired from the winding drive, but starting to relax in the hot spring. Our talk turned to the radio news of a polar bear that swam all the way from Greenland and landed just up the coast from us. It is the policy in Iceland to kill any polar bear that makes land, and this bear was no exception: it was shot dead.

We thought of a project, a spectacle for the Istanbul Biennale: Stage one: We would tow a big ash coated iceberg all the way from the Arctic Ocean into the Mediterranean sea and then anchor it near the Port of Istanbul.

Stage two: in our secret genetic engineering lab we would augment an Icelandic horse with the genetics of a Narwhal, creating a cute and very intelligent unicorn.

This Arctic unicorn lived with us on the iceberg. We carved out bowls in the ice and filled them with feed for the unicorn. People in Istanbul would watch us feeding the unicorn oats and toasting the unicorn with lager in Narwhal drinking horns. Each day the iceberg melted more, and when it finally tipped, we swam ashore with the unicorn.

The press loved our project and the senior curator wrote a long essay about anxiety and global warming. We declined to comment. With our unicorn on board, we left immediately in our solar powered catamaran for Cuba.

Stage three: in our secret geological engineering lab we created a small volcano off the coast of southeast Cuba. People in Santiago de Cuba would watch us feeding the unicorn sweet potatoes and corn cooked on a fumarole while we toasted the unicorn with rum in our conch drinking horns. At night we built a reef around the volcano and stocked it with fish, turtles, tropical walrus and seals. 50 years later, the polar caps and glaciers had final1 ly melted. Looking north from our volcano, Florida had totally disappeared under water as we patiently waited for the first polar bears to arrive.





On Exactitude in Science. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

purportedly from Suárez Miranda, Travels of Prudent Men, Book Four, Ch. XLV, Lérida, 1658 – On Rigor in Science by Jorge Luis Borges

“What a useful thing a pocket-map is!” I remarked.
“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do youconsider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all ! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight ! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

from Lewis CarrollSylvie and Bruno Concluded, Chapter XI, London, 1895

Further Reading: