Some Thoughts on Creativity

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I spotted this graffiti art on my way into UCC last Friday morning the 8th of April, DAY of DH 2016. It had been a few weeks since I walked this route, and although I was rushing to make it in on time for the start of the second day of Digitalis 2.0, it was so striking that I had to stop to take a photograph. What caught my eye is the hybrid tree image, the blend of real leaves and branches with a painted root system. Upon first glance, the strands and nodes of this initially looked like a circuit board or the kind of flow chart you might see in an infographic.

It calls to mind a quotation from Bear 71: “Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the wired world ends and the wild one begins.” While the aforementioned documentary aims to highlight the impact human and digital presence can have on natural habitats, this “Routed Tree” (a name born of my love of a good pun) unites the wired and wild on the side of an old building. Not only has a rather unattractive old building become a bit more interesting to look at, but the art evokes, for me at least, two of the biggest issues of our time: the decline of natural environment and the surge in digital technology. Big thoughts for a Friday morning! 

It also made me think about the MA students presenting their research proposals over the course of the two-day event organised by and for them. At the beginning of research projects, the power of imagination can make or break the, swelling them beyond control, or limiting them to one dimensional flatness. The conference is an opportunity for them to pitch their project and engage with their lecturers and classmates in order to tease out ideas, work out the kinks and, of course, to exchange knowledge.

In one of those odd twists of fate, one of the students presenting on Friday morning not only included a photo of this graffiti art in her slideshow, but was also involved in creating it. She, like a number of other presenters, is focussing on communities of practice, global citizenship, art, creativity and activism.

Then, in the afternoon, I had the pleasure of listening to Prof. Andrew Prescott give a talk on “Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities” during Digitalis 2.0 (annual MA research conference for the MA in Digital Cultures and MA in Digital Arts and Humanities programmes in University College Cork). His talk placed emphasis on making links with the creative economy. He states, “The Day of Digital Humanities should not only be a day for looking inwards towards our own community but also outwards towards the new connections with the creative economy, creative technologists, digital artists, media theorists and other allies.” His comments fit well with the scope of research on display at #uccdigitalis. Many of our students are engaging with the creative economy in their projects. Over the course of two days we had mention of everything from yarn bombing to building online creative communities, from developing virtual artist in residence programmes to creating a radio station for refugees in Calais, to name just a few of the activities being undertaken.

That evening I scanned through my Facebook timeline and spotted this article, “President Higgins: Universities facing ‘intellectual crisis.’” The President, in an address delivered at the annual European Universities Association conference in NUI Galway, states that Irish universities are pressured into focussing more on churning out graduates for the labour market “at the expense of fostering life-enhancing skills such as critical thinking and creativity.” Indeed, one need only attend a University Open Day to see droves of parents moving from one stand to the next asking, “but will they get jobs at the end of it?” to realise that this is true. I’ll write another post about this soon because I have more to say. But for now, my point is that having just spent two days observing the creative actions of our digital humanities students, I felt both proud that creativity has not been sacrificed in one small corner of academia, and frustrated because, looking at the grand scheme of things, our President is so very correct. Like I said, more on this later.

Anyway, the weekend came and went, with my mind constantly see-sawing between all the interesting thoughts and ideas I had whirling around me after the MA conference, and worry in response to President Higgins’s comments. Monday morning arrived with another article in my Facebook timeline, having been tagged by one of the digital arts and humanities PhD candidates, Jessica Jones (no relation to the Netflix show…as far as I know!). The article, “Wanted: Creative Humans to Make AI Personalities Sparkle,” highlights the input “creative workers” like poets, writers, artists and comedians are having on making AI assistants (Siri, Cortana, and Alexa) more interesting, personable and human. It confirms what many of us who trained in the arts and humanities already know, that creativity, critical thinking and problem solving are major strengths. These skills have any number of applications in the contemporary labour market, including AI development, if the aforementioned article is anything to go on.

I’ll wrap up by returning briefly to Andrew Prescott’s time with us at #uccdigitalis. During the discussion that followed his talk, Prescott suggested that perhaps digital humanities can be seen as “an insurgent activity” in the academy, especially if we continue to engage with the creative economy and copperfasten all of the ideals of that within our theory and practise. Perhaps creative insurgency at large is what is needed to combat the worrying trend that President Higgins identified in academia. I do hope though that someday walking into a classroom and asking students to think critically will not be considered an insurgent activity, but a mainstay of education and gateway to further life-enhancing activities.

Check out the highlights from #uccdigitalis below:

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