Art Informing Innovation

An artist’s talk by Perth artist Miik Green, at his current "Pigments and Pathogens" exhibition at Linton & Kay in Subiaco, demonstrates how arts can benefit innovation.

Green's work and process is unusual - he prepares then pours a hybrid resin onto a square aluminium 'canvas' laid flat on the floor of his studio, mixing in pigments for colour. He then injects (quite literally, with lab syringes) various industrial chemicals and compounds - 'pathogens' that will soon affect the resin. He seals off the studio, and then leaves the flat work alone, bubbling away, reacting and creating new forms. A few hours later, when the reactions are complete, he inspects the resultant works, which based on those in the exhibition, are often quite astounding and unexpected.

The chemical reactions within or on the surface of the resin create cracks, scars, cell-like forms and cosmic patterns - quickly leading the viewer to make connections with organic or chemical processes, of forms growing in a lab, or occurring in outer space. Some seem to have mutated, others have formed surfaces of great beauty – or both.

Miik Green from the Xylem Series (mixed media on aluminium)

Miik Green from the Xylem Series (mixed media on aluminium)

But to look only at the surface of these works is to miss the point – and a real benefit. An artist’s work is also always an embodiment of the artist’s process and approach to creating, and it is of course here that artists can really push boundaries. The artistic process is not just the technical application of paint or hard lines of sculpting, it is the inception, implementation and realisation of new concepts, models and perspectives. These might not always be evident in the finished work, but they are always there – and they are important. It’s these matters that offer great benefit to how we innovate.

Miik’s approach to his creations is quite unique – in his words (paraphrased), he is 'controlling the inputs, but not the outputs', and he willingly gives over the process to “chaos”, once he has mixed and injected a combination of ‘pigments and pathogens’. He carefully seeks out and considers these inputs, and tightly controls the process in which they interact, but at the point he closes the door to his lab, he steps away. He doesn’t seek to find perfection or any other specific goal – he simply seeks to create.

He also rarely tries to replicate or fine-tune a work to get closer to a desired result – instead he simply moves on to uncover the outcome of another set of pigments and pathogens. No work is a “failure” (even if it turns out brown!) unless the process fails by say catching fire, or a bug landing in the resin mucks it all up. All his outcomes are 'successes', and so he chooses which to exhibit based on the range of those results.

So – how could Miik’s artistic process of creating chemical works benefit innovation?

If we look at why we innovate, we are often setting out to meet specific needs. But, in many cases, true innovation occurs with a discovery of the unexpected, chartering of an unexplored territory, or the uncovering of new possibilities, which we then seek to utilise. Any innovation is expected to be useful, or to solve some problem, but it does not mean we need to narrow our goals and “close off” how we should arrive at them.

The artistic process, and in particular Miik Green’s, offers great insight to this aspect. A process by which an unlimited range of output can occur offers just as much scope for innovative results as does a carefully controlled, replicated and refined process of seeking to arrive at a specific goal (such as a specific advancement in a technology). If we seek just to achieve goal A, we may well miss out on all innovation from B to Z.

Not all those outcomes might be immediately useful, but they will seldom be useless. A murky brown artwork is still useful – should murky brown artwork come into vogue. The point is that if we preconceive what will be “innovative”, we will limit innovation.

For example, one of Miik’s works reminded me of lush grey marble splattered with silver ingots – Miik’s artistic process may have been much like the natural process that forms marble; a unique combination of chemicals mixing in a molten magma to create an entirely unpredictable and unreplicable effect, which is exactly what gives marble its unique allure. Miik clearly wasn’t setting out to create this result. Could we have innovated marble in a controlled laboratory, before we even knew marble was?

Opening up the outcomes, whether in a chemical laboratory, an engineering factory, an app development studio or a service delivery review, can create more outcomes – and can lead to useful innovations from outside where we had previously focused our efforts or control. Quite literally, ‘outside the box’ of where we think we know it will be.

Whilst there is obviously value in seeking to control outcomes and to achieve specific results, this can come at the expense of completely missing the innovation we would see by leaving the objectives or parameters more open. Innovation can benefit from an artistic methodology, like Miik Green's, that seeks to uncover all the possibilities.

More tangibly then, drawing on the artist’s processes in a technological or industrial setting would open up more possibilities for innovation. There are precedents for an “artist in residence” who can challenge industrial approaches, and open innovation. Xerox’s Palo Alto Artist-in-Residence, put artists and developers, who each worked with similar technology, in an environment that lead to new technology and methods.

Placing Miik Green in a West Australian industrial chemical lab to work alongside and collaborate in creating new compounds or uses would likely lead to similar results.

At the very least, his process, of seeking not to control or direct outputs, of having no specific objective or ‘box’ other than to create new interactions, and therefore results, offers a powerful new perspective to innovators in technology, chemistry or software.

Whilst there is value in seeking to control outcomes and achieve specific outcomes (new tools or products we need, for example), how many do we miss, by a long way or a hair's breadth, by not leaving the parameters or objectives more open? Could innovation benefit from a methodology, like Miik Green's, that seeks to uncover all the possibilities, rather than narrow down certainties?

MIIK GREEN from the Xlyem Series (mixed media on aluminium)

MIIK GREEN from the Xlyem Series (mixed media on aluminium)