This is yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing. The first issue explains the project; you can see all the issues here. My book, The Uncertainty Mindset, is about uncertainty, innovation … and cutting-edge cuisine. It’s officially out on July 28, but you can already get the ebook worldwide and you can pre-order physical books.
For a time, the MIT Museum’s street-front window display held an installation of a piece by Arthur Ganson: a small, luridly yellow chair. By means of an ingenious geared mechanism which was set up to nearly—but not entirely—disappear into the shadowed background, the chair repeatedly exploded into pieces which flew apart quickly, came to a stop, then coalesced again with gathering speed in an unending loop of destruction and formation.
The best part of Cory’s Yellow Chair was its sense of perfect inevitability. The cycle of explosion and coalescence seemed so smoothly calibrated as to be unavoidable and preordained. These words really don’t convey the feeling of watching the chair IRL—the piece evokes a sense in the viewer which is impossible to describe in words. Weirdly, in a tiny way, watching it feels sublime. This is a puffy word to describe a real and quite simple sensation of specialness, of departure from the everyday. Other things I’ve come across that have been special like this include the courtyard of an apartment block, a swiftly assembled plate of food, a performance of a play, a recording of a song, a book, a turn of phrase.
It seems like nearly any type of thing can be special enough to stop us in our tracks. But though almost anything could be special like this, in fact nearly nothing is.
What makes things special in this way explains why there are so few of them. Marshall McLuhan seems to have fallen out of fashion these days, but one of his insights is relevant here: the possibility of participation as a key structural characteristic of a medium. What he labeled “hot” media stimulate overwhelmingly, leaving little room for the experiencer to participate in constructing the experience. “Cool” media, by comparison leave open spaces for the experiencer to fill in. A cool medium both allows and encourages the experiencer to construct more of the experience.
Without getting into the by now decades-old arguments about McLuhan’s definition of media, we can profit from his conceptual distinction between hot and cool media: stimulus that either overdetermines response by crowding out all alternatives, or that holds back and leaves room for responses which are partly unpredictable.
The experience of the sublime requires being taken out of the everyday. This feeling is recognizable only because something beyond the self remains connected to the everyday sensation of being stuck in the self. My working hypothesis: things can only stimulate this connection between humdrum self and something beyond when the experiencer has the opportunity to respond in ways that are completely personal. A made thing whose experience is overdetermined by its maker—which offers almost no room for personal responses—rarely feels sublime, though it can provoke powerful responses in those who experience it. (Also see: fascist architecture.)
The problem is that the maker is always tempted to overdetermine: to control how the thing made is experienced by others, to reduce the number of ways in which it can be misunderstood. The maker’s instinct to make things as certain as possible in their effect. This is why so few things create the feeling, even in a tiny way, of the sublime. (Overdetermination is not the only pitfall on the road to making things that have the potential to create the experience of the sublime. There are at least two others: 1) leaving too much open space and 2) leaving an ineffective pattern of open space.)
Several years after seeing Cory’s Yellow Chair for the first time, I came across a recording of a talk Ganson gave in the early, less produced days of TED. At the end, he describes his motivations in making a piece titled Machine with Chair:
As he says, “when I’m making these pieces, I’m always trying to find a point where I’m saying something very clearly and it’s very simple, but at the same time it’s very ambiguous. I think that there's a point between simplicity and ambiguity, which can allow a viewer to perhaps take something from it.” (See the full video of Machine with Chair here.)
Open space is a prerequisite for things that go beyond the everyday. For the maker, this is extraordinarily hard because leaving open space means surrendering control by intentionally and strategically incorporating uncertainty into what you make. This goes against the natural instinct for certainty, so much so that it often indicates real mastery.