Constructive disruption

Sometimes the best way to resolve a creative problem is to work it very differently. Sometimes the best way to get to where you’re going is to take a little diversion along the way. Sometimes the best way to find something you’ve lost is to look everywhere else first.

This year I’ve been thinking a lot about constructive disruption: the mode of thinking that makes a deliberate departure from the mode of thinking.

Many times in the past, I’ve offered the advice structure sets you free to collaborators or colleagues who have been stuck on a problem. What’s your framework? Is it the best framework? Is it enabling and generative, or is it constraining and limiting? Approaching something with the right structure allows you to take all the risks your ambition will allow, while knowing that there’s a framework there to interpret those wild imaginings into a resolvable work. And, of course, any framework is only of use for as long as it can be of use. When it stops generating something of value, it’s time to find the next one.

A few years back I collaborated on the ADC Cities Summit project Plan Unintended Consequences, the work of the Surprise City group. Our mission was to unsettle the dominant ways of thinking. We introduced a range of techniques – both welcome and unwelcome ones! – for the use of the other groups working across infrastructure, energy, military and commercial areas. We challenged participants to employ counter-factuals, to take a condition to its limit, to shift in scale. We hoped to create the shared understanding that urban planning is only ever a means of containing the uncontainable.

At the recent Regional Arts Victoria professional development retreat – our annual commitment to fostering a creative professional practice – we workshopped a range of approaches under the plan unintended consequences theme. Having warmed up by undertaking a Situationist dĂ©rive of our working site, Newport’s iconic The Substation, I presented a session composed of three elements:

  • Planning and structuring: understanding the current structures that frame your work; interruption and flow; experimental ways to arrive at the structure that will best enable the work.
  • Constructive disruption: techniques for shifting your perspective to allow new ideas to emerge e.g. drawing, mapping, mindmapping; making your hands work differently; using another medium.
  • Understanding your practice: techniques for understanding yourself, your creative ambitions, your ideas, your capacities and limitations.

The image above is a small collection of objects that sit to my left at my Regional Arts Victoria desk, at the bottom corner of my window. Each one of them serves a constructive disruption purpose. The colour-faced die, for example, is a circuit breaker: I roll it when there are too many options at hand, and the colour that lands uppermost offers me an abstract means for judging the merits of the current option anew. While I admire approaches like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies (and used to make such cards myself as a child), for me the disruptor is best when it is not linguistic.

To action, then! Come October in Kalgoorlie, a team of us from around the country will have new opportunities to apply such constructive disruptions as Special Agents at Regional Arts Australia’s Arts & Edges. Artistic Director Ben Fox has conceived of this special parallel program “for people who want to program rather than be programmed.” Conferences and festivals have a temporality of their very own, drawing us into modes of listening, presenting and networking that can all-too-easily stay within known parameters. However, when suddenly we find ourselves inspired by an unexpected provocation or an astounding artist, we want to respond – in real time. Arts & Edges’ Accessible Programming Interface (API) program will offer participants the means for gathering, making and engaging anew, right there and then. As Ambassador for the API program, I’ll be encouraging as many creative participation modes as possible – including with those of us not physically present. Join us!