I had some work in an exhibition that accompanied the latest TECHNE student congress. I used the opportunity for an experiment. As part of my research, I have been finding new ways to engage with mathematical texts and consider the various structures present therein–to deconstruct them, more or less.
In this example, I took a paper and cut out any sections that seemed surprisingly emotive or less precise than usual. Reflecting on what this produced, I had the feeling that many of these were pragmatic, or instances of the authors appealing to relevant contextual knowledge that a reader might be expected to hold about the discipline or the values and expectations shared therein. From another perspective, it resulted in some rather curious poetry.
I felt it might be interesting to empower a group of non-mathematicians to similarly experiment with a section of a paper, to shift things so that it might not only be perceived as something in an unknown code that is therefore entirely distant and inaccessible, but as something with its roots in other traditions of writing and sharing that could therefore be approached from this perspective. The results were interesting.
Several small poems showed up, tucked into corners of the board. The visual fascination with notation was in evidence, slices made that zoomed through some particular expression. The most popular approach though was to work with the physical form of the paper and its properties, something that even as a sculptor I had actually tended to forget. Content had, thus far, been winning out over form. Slices were looped into rollercoasters, folded to make sharp edges, twisted and abused to make tortured three-dimensional structures that stood up proud. A sheet that had long slices in it to cut out particular parts became an armadillo, rounded and fat. It is easy to forget that this material, which we have processed so much to make it serve as a quiet, transparent, neat and flat medium, doing all it can not to interfere with the ideas it is a vehicle for, has a physicality that can be built with.
What I’d like to do next is to try the same experiment with a group of mathematicians. My initial prediction is that they will be more inclined to engage with the written content, to organise according to similarity or function, but perhaps I will be wrong. It may be that just asking ‘what can you do with this?’ is enough to turn a sheet of paper back into a sheet of paper.