“Adaptability and creativity will become two of the most valuable character traits in the future. Nurture them”. James White and Adam Timlett
INTERVIEW WITH Artist: James Robert White
Current location: Hackney
Current happiness levels out of 10: 7.5, it was 8.5 til the EE broadband ‘helpline’ came into my life and ruined my day.
Favourite film: Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series is one that affected me in a way that films generally don’t. It is very much an art narrative rather that a movie film but after 8 solid hours it did leave a few marks in my brain.
Favourite musician: It’s too hard to pin down, the way my mood changes its different every time I listen to anything.
Favourite artist: Da Vinci:- his attitude to creating is something I have always strived to emulate. The interdisciplinary range of work shows such a creative and engaged mind with the freedom to think, explore and incorporate in diverse fields of engineering and science as well as some of the most competent and sublime art that I have seen created.
Favourite book: Gorgias, by Plato. It’s basically a guide for winning any argument that you could get yourself into. It really teaches you to burn orators with impunity.
Favourite colour: White, But I am desperate to try out the new Black 2.0 (super black) by Semple I think. I am already working on a couple of ideas as are most artists I should imagine.
Favourite area of London? It’s whenever I come across anything new, something that’s just opened, popped up, put on or been built.
Favourite food? Place to eat? Thai, and I still haven’t found anywhere as good as Tre Veit on Mare st. And I’ve tried a fair few across London.
Favourite procrastination technique? Is defiantly thinking about what I should be thinking about, (art, science, meaning of life etc.) but not necessarily all at the same time.
James Robert White has worked as an artist for over 25 years. He started developing an insight for science and art from early on in his life. Having developed and mastered his own painting techniques, James has been able to create a unique style, creating works that are understood by scientists as examples of ‘complexity’.
You studied a degree in Fine Art. Did you find that necessary/a good grounding to your career path now. The fees are so huge for people attending University these days – do you believe a degree set you up for life in your career?
I had a tough time at college with half the tutors saying art and science could never mix and the other half loving it. I left the campus in the 2nd year and started a studio mostly where I lived as well, the lecturers who were on my side came to me to have tutorials and really encouraged me. It was hard to receive competent advice from people who couldn’t understand what I was doing and had no frame of reference to judge it. It required an understanding of the language of both art and science to be useful and most of the tutors didn’t have it.
I can’t imagine how people do it today on a low income. It’s why universities/colleges are full of people who can pay rather than good artists. I must admit, having a degree might matter to some but I don’t think it has any bearing on how good you will be as an artist. If they refuse to teach you about the business side of it then it still fails where most other vocational courses can and do succeed. You are better off going out there and finding mentors. People whose work you relate to and just asking them to be a mentor or just for ongoing advice. If you have a few of those then you have essentially got all that art school has to offer apart from production facilities. And you have to learn how to sort those out for yourselves pretty quick when you leave so you might as well get on with it.
How have you found the collaboration between the sciences and the arts. I did start reading the academic papers you sent me. In all honesty I feel my brain isn’t wired correctly for maths/science… they are subject materials I have never found that easy. How have you found learning about the science side of things as an artist.
I can’t really do maths very well. I am very discalculous, (the math’s side of dyslexic, of which I am as well). It came about by being able to grasp the concepts and me finding another way to a) understand them, and b) if at all possible, prove them. I still have to have things explained in a few ways before I spatially think them through. Each time I engage with new concepts it makes me have to think in a different way. I’m very stubborn and I like to get things right and to take them as far as possible. I really can’t relate to the way a lot of artists say that they are dealing with this subject or exploring something or other. Get it dealt with, find what you are looking for. Go all in, not half way. Don’t be scared to fail.
You work closely with Adam Timlett – a Philosopher of Science – what actually is a ‘philosopher’ of science and what is your relationship?
Philosophy of Science is a sub-field of philosophy that engages with the methods of science and the robustness of scientific research and outcomes. It is about the thought processes that encompass scientific discourse and research. It questions and analyses the concepts and methods as well as the findings and results.
Adam and I met about 7 years ago and have been working on a range of things over that time. It really is about the conversations and the thinking that comes out of them.
“James seeks to explore the concept of complexity, and the central idea that ‘nothing exists on its own”. Would you say that this is a play on the need for human connection? What are your thoughts on social isolation in today’s society?
The nature of complexity in the natural world by definition means that nothing exists on its own. We all know evolution can trace all of us back to bacteria and single cell organisms.
But as far as society and the alienation that pervades us, I think it is largely due to the human condition and education. We as humans work best in groups but unfortunately, not as one group. We are left with constraints of tribe as a means of survival in a global world. We are watching this play out with some tribes losing out where others are thriving with the change. Isolation is compounded by the scope of life around us, there is less conformity of collective thought and this is isolating even amongst peer groups these days.
When you began to have talks with different people for your work – for example traders, financiers, genetic scientists, physicists, and other post disciplinarians – what was the common thread that linked everyone up?
The use of data and what it can bring to the table an also what it can’t. Why it is necessary, and how to use it for actionable insights.
“Millions of simple interactions that result in the complex phenomena we see around us.. can you explain that statement more? So perhaps the interaction is not really that simple? For example can complexity ever be simple? For instance although you are depicting complexity in your paintings – was that a complex or simple task? Hmmm…
Adam: The idea about complexity depends on your attitude and approach. Some people believe complexity is ‘complex by definition’ and shy away from trying to simplify what is apparently complex. However, science generally only makes progress when what seems very difficult to understand is actually shown to be relatively more simple than we first thought. Therefore, as a ‘Philosopher of Science’, I believe that eventually complexity as a science will make progress only by revealing relative simplicity in some forms of complexity. This could indeed be that millions of simple interactions which cause apparently complex phenomena. The main evidence for this particular idea exists already. There are very simple programs and simulations of apparently complex behaviour like flocking algorithms which look similar to both flocks and shoals and also stock market movements in a crisis. There is also the ‘grandfather’ of complexity software, James Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ which you can play with on the internet for free if you want, and decide for yourself! However, unpredictability does seem to be a core feature of complexity. It is what you can do about it that matters more.
Do humans make life more complex than it needs to be? How do we keep it simple? Adam, advice reasoning information decemination?
Adam: This goes back to the previous question really. If we think of life as ‘algorithmic’ the result of lots of little local decisions which add up to unexpected results, then we need to understand the ‘algorithm’ of our lives a little better. Some areas of life are inherently complex and unpredictable, like software development which I work in and which always tries to be innovative and often fails. Yet we can now identify methods that have emerged recently which seem to work because they emphasise communication and freedom to change your mind and re-take decisions and choices. This is a very good way of dealing with unpredictability if you do it in a strategic way. An example of this is the ‘Agile’ approach to software development which is now very popular and involves far less planning and more communication. The same basic principle applies to using mobile phones to meet up. More communication helps you to organize successfully despite unpredictability.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Looking, listening, talking, reading and drawing sketches on any old scrap of paper. When these things happen or I am doing them, inspiration just comes. I think I have an inquisitive and responsive mind. So I don’t really think about it as I can’t turn it off.
Have you experienced a creative block/or black hole?
The early part of the year was rough, I actually wrote a blog on it and how I got through it. It resulted in a great piece that I really like and means a lot. So block isn’t something to fear, it’s more of a person you battle with yourself. There are only two ways to go with it in my experience. one is to ignore it and come back to it later. Or work through it with a vengeance and get used to making crap that doesn’t work until you break through it. I recommend the latter, because I feel I come out further along the path and that I’ve won in some ways. You can read and see it here https://www.jamesrobertwhiteart.com/blog
What do you think you would do if you weren’t an artist?
I’d probably sleep better if I didn’t have such an unquiet mind.
What is the most important thing in life?
People and truths.
Do you feel like you’re on the right path?
The right path, I don’t know yet. But I’m very happy with my path. I own it.
Your favourite current artists?
It’s the same answer as musicians, it is different every time I look at art. I think it is because I’ feel’ as well as ’get’ certain art, and feelings pass. But when they first get through that’s the good bit. But it’s Greg Dunn today’s favorite artist. He is a neuro scientist/artist.
Where can we see your work?
Only one show booked up so far this year, in Brighton. But tomorrow I am guest editing ‘I am sciart’ and being featured on Artsyshark over the summer. But we are working on a couple of really big projects involving one of the big Royal Societies in London. We’re fleshing them out over the next six months and will publish one of them as far away as in two years time.
What is the most beautiful thing about art for you?
The most beautiful thing about art for me is that as a species, we do it.
How’s giving up smoking? Any thoughts on complexity on addiction?
Giving up smoking went well, but giving up nicotine not so well. But I am starting to think about it now though and it will come up in conversation with Adam I am sure. It’s how the inspiration thingy starts. I haven’t thought much about the complexity of addiction too much until I realized how difficult it is to give up cigarettes or alcohol.
Adam: I think it is one of those things that makes you realise how tricky the mind can be, because we are so good at fooling ourselves that everything is ok and it is just one cigarette. I suppose it relates to the necessary property of the mind which seems to be that it is unable to predict itself that well. The better you get at predicting your future behaviour and feelings the better you are at not fooling yourself about the effect of your immediate action like not having a ‘quick’ cigarette. Or telling yourself you are just going out for ‘one’ pint. Other people can predict your behaviour very easily, but you cannot. I guess it takes a lot of practice; you have to be more defensive in your behaviour and honest about your frailties.
The next big election is coming up in England (again) – do you have any hopes or thoughts on this? Artists can be influential…
Get out and vote, old people turn out en masse, and they have robbed the future of young people by lapping up what the five special interest press barons throw at them through The Daily Mail, the Sun, Telegraph etc, and it makes me mad. Governments don’t care about young people because they don’t vote. If you want to change that, then vote, be active. And don’t let them get away with it..
Favorite quote to leave us on:
“Adaptability and creativity will become two of the most valuable character traits in the future. Nurture them”.
Thanks James and Adam! Very educational!