Ideas by Association

20,000 Days on Earth is one of the best films I’ve seen that explores the creative process. The loose premise is that a film crew is following around the Australian musician and writer, Nick Cave, on what is supposedly his – yup – 20,000th day on Earth. We watch him working in the studio, chatting with friends, visiting his archive and performing his songs. It’s filled with gems, although I particularly like this observation:

Do you wanna know how to write a song? Song-writing is about counterpoint. Counterpoint is the key. Putting two disparate images beside each other and seeing which way the sparks fly. Like letting a small child in the same room as, I don’t know, a Mongolian psychopath or something… and just sitting back and seeing what happens… Then you send in a clown, say, on a tricycle, and again you wait and watch… and if that doesn’t do it… you shoot the clown.”

Making associations, particularly by bringing together disparate thoughts or making new connections, is often referenced as a key aspect of creativity and ideas generation. Sir Ken Robinson writes in Out of Our Minds that, “Creative thinking is a break with habitual patterns of thought… All of our existing thoughts have creative possibilities. Creative insights occur when they are combined in unexpected ways or applied to questions or issues with which they are not normally associated.” (p.135) As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Stephen J Tepper and George D Kuhn list key components of creativity in Let’s Get Serious About Cultivating Creativity, including: “the ability to approach problems in non-routine ways using analogy and metaphor” and; “keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns”. A Brain Pickings blogpost from 2012 reviews James Webb Young’s 1939 book, A Technique for Producing Ideas; Young also mentions the importance of associations: “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements… the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships… To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge.”

Generating new ideas through making connections and associations comes naturally to museum educators because it is such a fundamental part of our work. We are always looking for ways to link audiences and artworks; we seek themes that are relevant and interesting to different groups; we draw out metaphorical potential in artworks to explore a broad range of subjects; and we have the creative challenge of trying to satisfy many competing priorities and perspectives through reaching a unified solution. How often has the command come from above to design an exciting learning programme for under-represented audiences as part of a funding application for a niche exhibition or obscure object? While it can be a struggle to make meaningful links, I also enjoy the weirder combinations as an opportunity to be more playful with the associations that can be made. MCA Denver’s Mixed Taste talks are a great example of how unusual associations can be used in programming to open up audience thinking – and do please get in touch if you have other examples I can share too.

When up against tight deadlines or pushed for headspace by endless to-do lists, I know many peers turn to their collections and exhibitions to re-fresh their thinking. ‘De-focussed’ wandering and pondering through the galleries can be a great way to spark inspiration. I also like using the collections for team planning meetings – using metaphor and associations to explore current issues through objects. And if all else fails, shoot the clown.

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