Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the Pleasures of Constraints

When I was interviewing for faculty positions back in 2004, I visited several liberal arts colleges across the country. Some were ranked higher than others, some had better labs than others, but one college stood out from the rest as markedly more vibrant: Bennington College. Something different was going on at Bennington, and I could feel it in the festive intensity of the faculty and students.

Sometimes I think Bennington's vitality is due to its visual and performing artists, both student and faculty. These folks certainly pack a wallop. The sculptors, painters, and other artists on the faculty were always announcing gallery openings in big cities and having their work featured in museum programs. The dancers were always going to or from their studios in New York City, or being written up in the New York Times. All of this inspired me to fulfill the college's ideal of faculty members as "teacher-practitioners." Without the artists' example, I think it would have been easy for a theoretical physicist in a rural college to go to seed.

The student-artists were an inspiration too. For one thing, they were often the people in my physics laboratory who had actual skills - they could use lathes, drill presses, welders, and a lot of other tools that nobody in their right mind would let me use by myself. Together we made some pretty cool apparatus. The artists also had an effect on my classroom presentation of physics and math. When teaching Newton's laws to dancers, the implications for the body and for locomotion become at least as interesting as the implications for spaceships. (You can get a sense of this from the occasional blog post here and here.)

The arts faculty were curious about my work, and they often invited me into their classrooms to share my research, or discuss some of the parallels between physics, math, music and art. For example, there was a drawing class in which the students made 100 drawings throughout the semester, each in response to a set of constraints imposed by the teacher. (A drawing might be required to use only vertical lines, for example.) So I paid a visit to the studio one day and gave some remarks about the role that constraints play in math and games. The handout from that day, called "On the Pleasures of Constraints," is here.

On another occasion, I spent an hour in a dance studio talking force and motion with faculty member Susan Sgorbati and a pair of dancers who were rehearsing one of her pieces. When I got there and started looking around, I saw all this floor just asking to be walked on. Pretty soon I found myself moving and grabbing hold of people - doing the explaining with my body. That was the day when the thought first occurred to me that locomotion is a series of controlled collisions with the earth (and that, consequently, the floor is a partner in every dance - an idea, by the way, that means mechanizing the dancers, not enlivening the floor). After that, even my regular classroom teaching was fairly kinetic.

Sometimes the artists at Bennington pulled me out of my comfort zone and out of my shell. One student asked me to act in her video art project. It was a deep and powerful piece, and I was terrified that I'd ruin it for her. But I heard I was actually OK, and I enjoyed doing it! (Though I was a little disturbed by how easily I could get angry at a lens. Like I was a pigeon or something.)

Then there was the sculptor on the faculty who suckered me into making this puppy and showing it in the college art gallery.

I wrote about the making of the sculpture here. Soon afterwards, I wrote about the show's after party, where I spoke with a student artist whose next project would have astronomical relevance. The artist, now graduated, was Charlotte X.C. Sullivan, whose latest work can be seen here.

These experiences probably helped me to take a few risks with my lecture for the College's 75th anniversary, a portion of which can be seen in, um, a literary magazine called The Charles River Journal.


Bennington has always made the arts central to a liberal education, ever since its founding. And design and the arts remain central in the new vision of the liberal arts being spearheaded by college President Elizabeth Coleman. Bennington's newest building is being dedicated to this vision later this year. It's called the Center for the Advancement of Public Action. I had a tour of the building and construction site a few weeks ago. As befits the college and its artistic heritage, the Center is an architectural masterwork by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. It is staggeringly beautiful inside and out. The exterior, faced with reclaimed Vermont marble, hearkens back to the origins of democracy in Greece - and in America. (Many buildings in Washington, D.C., contain Vermont marble, including the exterior columns and walls of the Jefferson Memorial.) The surprisingly spacious interior is fit for various purposes, and is gorgeously made of wood, tile, and stone. The building is a beautiful instantiation of the idea that the arts have a serious role to play in fostering thoughtful action in a liberal education.