I’m remembering that time in 2019 when Jessica Hulter and I learned of a mass forced migration of Portuguese man o’ wars onto the East side of Oahu due to winds. The odd little blobs were being beached by the thousands, by the millions, so of course we went to welcome them. We had only just arrived on the island and so were eager to get started embracing its beautiful strangeness. I love immersing myself in new types of nature. I have learned that all around us are alien pocket-worlds that will make you feel like a disoriented visitor if you only pay enough attention.
I managed to catch a few usable shots using a zoom lens by laying at a distance on the sand. This was before I’d managed to score a macro lens, which struck me as too expensive before I found the permanent yard sale full of deteriorating camera equipment in a mansion on Diamond Head. Taking a closeup of a 3-inch, nearly invisible blob on a windy beach from 15 feet away while I lay flat trying to avoid touching hundreds of famously painful little stinging tentacles is its own unique challenge, but I love photography because its not easy. In fact, I get little joy from shooting with a phone camera most of the time because the stupid shots come out too perfect for how much thought or effort I’m putting into them. I don’t want the camera to do most of the work. This is why when it’s a phone shot, I often like to say things like “Look at this picture my telephone took”, because really how much of that was me? Of course I love having the photos, so I keep asking my telephone to take them for me, but I dare not take credit.
One of my favorite photographers ever was this friend I met in Baltimore around 2009. Amanda’s poetry and photography were transcendent. As a habitual collector of camera equipment myself, it came as more than a small shock when she revealed to me that she didn’t own a camera. All of the pictures I’d been admiring on her blog before we met were taken at a resolution of like 2 megapixels with a flip phone. This was before telephones had really come into their own as expert photographers. The sensor on the thing was trash. The work was all her–an impeccable eye and brilliant composition. The limits of the instrument were accounted for, employed even in how she planned, experimented, and executed her shots. The artistry was all her, but it might be safe to say that the constraints of the tool were part of what enabled such artistry. She oriented herself to compliment and make use of its limits, which became perhaps what we could call enabling constraints for the expression.
That term “enabling constraints” comes from Alicia Juarrero and is incorporated into Dave Snowden‘s Cynefin framework, which prescribes the kinds of constraints to be preferably employed in different types of systems. John Cutler provides a few good examples of (potentially) enabling constraints in this piece, with the examples of deadlines and limiting work-in-progress. Deadlines are a constraint that can create or enable desired patterns to emerge. Limits to work-in-progress can enable alignment and a type of resonance or coherence of effort in ways that are less possible or probable in an unconstrained system.
Karl Scotland addresses EC in this piece, quoting Juarerro that “constraints constitute change in probabilities” and Snowden with the quote “Enabling constraints are expected to produce a wider range of outcomes, albeit with lower probability. They are more catalytic and probing, and they allow for more freedom of action depending on context.”
Another way of looking at what’s happening between an artist and their instrument is through the lens of assemblage. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the ideas (feel free to offer me help in the comments), but a common example that’s offered, referencing the original work of Deleuze and Guattari, is a rider on horseback wielding a weapon. Combined, they comprise an assemblage–a single, irreducible unit made capable of far more than the mere sum of its parts.
The relationship between assemblages and constraints is made explicit in Deleuze and Parnet’s description (1987):
“The functional constraints imposed on each constituent element are obvious. The horse has to behave in a specific way, responding to the prompts and actions of its rider, in order for the assemblage to work. Outside of a narrow range of behaviours the horse is not a part of the assemblage but acts rather as a disruption of it. The rider too must limit her range of motion, fitting her feet into stirrups and training her movements on the rhythms of the horse’s gallop, in order to be able to make use of the bow while riding. The bow and arrow form an assemblage of their own – coordinating wood, feather, string and stone in a long-range weapon – that is enlisted in the assemblage of the archer and horse. Each element constrains, consolidates and redirects the functional capacities of the others, and together they produce a new set of functions. The archer’s body is rearticulated in terms of the ability to wield her bow, the bow is an extension of her arm, a prolongation and acceleration of her ability to injure; the horse redoubles and intensifies those modifications, limiting but heightening the spatial-navigatory powers of the archer’s body, and together they herald a new kind of combatant, a new warfare dynamic and a newly configured battle space defined by distance and speed as a result.”
I think about the Artist and their constraining instrument as an assemblage enabled by constraints. Amanda and her flip phone. Me and my classical flute which desperately requires a tune-up. Me and all the other instruments I own that I’m not particularly adept at playing… but those limits somehow enable a particularly unique type of expression.
Did you know that none of these creatures I’ve captured in pictures is considered a single organism? They’re colonial organisms, made up of many smaller, genetically identical units that serve specialized functions within the larger colony. Really brings new meaning to the concept of collectivism, doesn’t it?
I’m thinking about collaboration with others as a type of ad-hoc assemblage, really only enabled when we become aware of the constraints and capacities made manifest by one-another’s postures, context, predilections, propensities, strengths, weaknesses, the governing and enabling constraints that occupy and surround us… Facilitation through this lens feels like the art of not just stewarding emergent social systems but enabling the emergence of assemblages. What role am I playing in this colonial organism? Are we both puffing up and forming buoyant sails when one of us ought to be extending out dozens of meters to serve as a stinging tentacle? Are the winds so strong that the presence of such a sail, normally a critical component, only increases the potential we get washed up on the shore? Who then is uniquely suited to serve as our anchor?
There’s something truly bizarre and beautiful about these creatures–little glass sculptures, stranded on the shore. If they weren’t famously painful to interact with, I’d be tempted to try and toss them back.