25 February 2007

Interdisciplinary Imagination

Zebra Strips, Bar Codes, and Prayer Shawls



My curriculum project, “From Science to Art,” encouraged junior high school students in Israel to develop their interdisciplinary imagination, ecological perspective, and integral consciousness through morphological analysis of periodicity and rhythmic structures, threshold phenomenon, bilateral and rotational symmetries, spiral and branching systems, and stochastic processes and asymmetries.

In the unit of study on periodicity and rhythmic patterns in nature and culture, students rolled out ink on a glass plate, pressed their fingers on it, and printed their fingerprints on uninflated white balloons and on tracing paper. They enlarged their fingerprints by blowing up the balloons and by placing the tracing paper in 35 mm slide holders and projecting them. They compared their fingerprints to each other to appreciate the uniqueness of each person. They saw that no two people have the same fingerprint pattern. Students compared their own fingerprints to fingerprints of chimpanzees. They learned that although there was a wide range of variation in human fingerprints, fingerprints from another species were outside that range. After students created classification systems for their classmates’ fingerprints, a police officer was invited to the classroom to explain the international system of fingerprint taxonomy. Students taped paper to the wall and projected their fingerprints on it while they drew the lines. They made paintings from their drawings. They enlarged fingerprints on a copy machine and printed them out on acetate sheets that they placed on top of one another to create moiré patterns. They discussed optical illusions and the psychology of human perception.

Students looked at reproductions of the “op art” of Bridget Riley and of Henry Pearson whose artwork was inspired by his drawing topographical maps in the army. Students studied topographic maps of the Israeli landscape. They observed the generation of rhythmic wave patterns in a ripple tank used in physics classes. What were the connections between ripples in water, geologically formed topographies, and their own fingerprints?

They watched a National Geographic film on zebras that showed how a pregnant zebra removed herself from the herd so that the newborn would only see her pattern of stripes. The baby zebra would memorize its mother’s unique pattern of stripes so that it could recognize her in the herd. A zebra that could not find its mother for nursing would perish. Does the supermarket laser recognize the bar code stripes on cans and cartons like a baby zebra recognizing its mother? Bar codes are the secret language of the digital age. We are all illiterate before the stripes that supermarket lasers can read.

Students examined the variety of stripe patterns on the talit prayer shawls worn by Jews in synagogue. They looked at Marc Chagall’s paintings of men wearing a talit. The unsymmetrical sequencing of the parallel stripes on each talit looks like a bar code. They studied the biblical verses about Joseph’s striped coat (Genesis 37: 3-4) and read commentaries on the symbolism of the striped coat. Some watched the video of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Students went out onto the school playground on a sunny day, unrolled paper on the ground, cut it into long pieces one for each student, and taped them down. Working in pairs, students drew around their classmate’s two feet and shadows. They returned to their drawings and placed their feet in the same places every hour for the duration of the day having their shadow drawn each time. The set of shadow drawings one on top of the other where visually linked to topographic maps and fingerprints. They painted overlapping serial self-portraits on their shadow drawings that had documented Planet Earth’s rotation. Conceptualizing the changing relationship of sun and earth, relating that dynamics to the form of one’s personal shadow, and communicating these relationships in a serial painting – his squat noontime body form to a late afternoon elongated body form – moves the students toward an integral structure of consciousness by unifying time-space, subject-object, man-environment, and science-art.

Interdisciplinary imagination sees fresh relationships between disparate realms of experience. In linear logical thinking, phenomena are trapped within narrowly defined boundaries. “From Science to Art” invited questioning that leads to experiencing a diaphanous world in which boundaries lose their opacity. How does one connect one’s own fingerprints with op art, topographical maps, ripple tanks, zebra stripes, supermarket bar codes, prayer shawls, Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat, one’s shadows and the rotation of Planet Earth? Interdisciplinary imagination couples the cognitive act of matching, of creating relationships/connections/congruencies, with a concomitant affective response of joy/amazement/elation so that, in psychologist Jerome Burner's words, “the energy of all one’s discordant impulses creates a single image connecting varieties of experience.”

After four years in Israel, I returned to the States to accept a position as Associate Professor of Art and Education at Columbia University where I introduced a course, “Morphodynamics: Design of Natural Systems,” through which my graduate students further expanded these units for developing interdisciplinary imagination through exploring patterns in nature. I expanded this pattern thinking in the realm of culture in the research methods course at Columbia that I team-taught with anthropologist Margaret Mead and in my subsequent research and teaching at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. I further explored the morphodynamics of cultural systems in “Morphological Perspectives: Space-Time Structures of Visual Culture,” the second chapter of my book The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, and in my paper, “Biblical Fringes: Biomorphic Consciousness through Ancient Ritual,” presented at the 2006 Consciousness Reframed conference at the University of Plymouth.

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