15 June 2006

Different Ways of Knowing

Art museums started me thinking about two different ways of knowing the world: cognitive vs. experiential.

I was fed up with reading about art, so, I decided I would take museums and galleries in two rounds.

Because I wanted to experience the work, I would first walk through and see which pieces moved me, which pieces spoke to me, touched me, made me reflect or consider something.

Then, I would walk through a second time and read the artist's statements or curator's comments on the background, history, context, etc.

Sometimes the info was enlightening. Sometimes it added nothing to the experience.

It seems there is the stuff inside our heads, what we know, the theories we think, the stories we discuss, the labels we use.

Then there is the practice of what we do, what we observe when we try things out, what we sense when we encounter the world around us.

I don't see how they can possibly be disconnected, but sometimes I think the cognitive and experiential mix like oil and water.

Sometimes I think we try to smash the two together, subjugating the experiential under the cognitive by forcing labels on what happens.

Or, maybe we just don't know how to pay equal attention to both channels as they feed us information.

I've had a couple of experiences that will never enter my thoughts.

When I went tandem sky-diving, my teacher explained sensory overload, common for first-time jumpers.

To jump out of a plane at 50,000 feet is so overwhelming that often you cannot process it.

Not only was it not cognitive, I even slipped temporarily out of the experiential.

Even though I was there the whole time, I remember very little of the 40-second free-fall before the shoot opened.

Later, when I went with 40 artists to Porto, a friend wanted visitors to take turns wearing her dresses through the club / exhibition space.

The floor-length, bright, canary-yellow period pieces had high necks, long sleeves, 40 buttons down the back and huge derrieres.

I volunteered to get the trend going even though I hate to be conspicuous.

The fluorescent yellow material seemed to be glowing.

Walking to the bar to order a beer took forever as I could feel every drawn-out second.

My movements began to feel forced and mechanical under the weight of every eye in the room.

When my friend later asked me how it went, I told her that I was most surprised by my post-Porto experience.

Whenever I had an awkward moment in the few weeks after the event, a strong feeling came over me that I was wearing the dress.

But the memory wasn't in my head. It was more like a body memory.

More than once, when I felt out-of-place, I felt enveloped by the damn yellow dress.

Thinking outside of the box is cognitive. Getting outside of the box is experiential.

I'm really curious about how urban camping will resonate with me next year after I land back at home base.

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