Most of us have a daily routine when we make our way to work. Out the door, to the left, through the park, up the hill, around the corner, cross the junction, to arrive at our familiar destination. Imagine one morning waking up, making your way out the door only to find that major roadworks had blocked your usual pathway. Your first reaction might be that of frustration by being held up... But what happens next when you still have to find a solution to getting to work on time?
This post will take its starting point in the article Constraint Satisfaction by Stephen M. Kosslyn taken from the book: This will make you smarter. The book is a series of short articles contemplating how to make humanity understand the world better. The question posed to 150 of the world's leading thinkers is: What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit? The full article can be found here.
In short the article Constraint Satisfaction discusses "'constraint' as a condition that must be taken in to consideration when solving a problem or making a decision and constraint satisfaction (as) the process of meeting the relevant constraint". So... as an example Kosslyn uses the illustration of furnishing his new bedroom knowing he has a bed with a headboard, a sofa, a chair and a lamp that he will need to fit in. That is already four constraints in place for this task. And by the time he places the headboard against one wall, satisfying the remaining three constraints is easier, as options for where the sofa and the chair will go are limited. As a matter of fact we daily encounter this principle when, for instance, we get dressed and decide "what goes with each other" in colours and style or when we look in the fridge to cook a meal, where the eggs, tomatoes and cheese are getting close to 'eat by' date.
Now you may be wondering how this relevant to improvisation. Well... as I was reading this article my work with the Mathilde improvisation collective came to mind and how we structure our rehearsals. This is what I thought:
Most of our Mathilde rehearsals evolve around task based exercises where we set a number of parameters to which we respond.
Examples of improvisation exercises:
The purpose of these exercises is to create a structure to generate the improvisation. If I'm told to improvise with my right hand on my head, standing on one leg while only making round shapes I have a limited amount of movement options. Kosslyn points out that there are often only a few ways to satisfy a full set of constraints simultaneously. As I aim to satisfy each constraint I liberate my brain and creativity to seek new connections and possibilities. With a given task I can let go of responsibility of 'making something up' and instead concentrate on fulfilling the task that is given and thus allow new movements to emerge. So paradoxically, limitations become freedom.
So the tracks of our physical pathways from home to work, become neural pathways in our brains creating bridges over time that we unconsciously follow unless an obstacle forces us to change them. Constraints obstruct the pathway and hence new connections are made.
Stephen M. Kosslyn finishes his article:
"Finally, much creativity emerges from constraint satisfaction. Many new recipes were created when chefs discovered that only specific ingredients were available — and they thus were either forced to substitute different ingredients or to come up with a new "solution" (dish) to be satisfied. Perhaps paradoxically, adding constraints can actually enhance creativity — if a task is too open or unstructured, it may be so unconstrained that it is difficult to devise any solution."
So although Kosslyn is describing a scientific concept it seems very relevant also for my artistic practice. Concluding that constraint satisfaction is already a part of my improvisation toolkit, the next question is then: how many constraints can you add before creativity starts decreasing? Or when does the constraint become a crutch that restricts the free improvisation? And even more relevant... (how) does improvisation work if there are no constraints at all?
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