Three responses to change – the professional approach

*Image: Dr. Anna Syme leads the conversation during The Gene Tree Project public workshop #2 in Carlton Connect Lab14 artistic research residency (September 2016), image – Tess Hutson

In our last article we revealed the three genetic responses to changes in the environment:

  1. Remain unchanged and not survive.
  2. Change but not survive.
  3. Change and survive.

That got me thinking about how we, as individuals, respond to changes in our work environment. In particular, what happens when an Artist and an Evolutionary Biologist encounter challenges in their creative process or research?

Perhaps the Artist can’t make a creative idea work in reality? Perhaps the Biologist has collected data that contradicts a hypothesis? How do they respond when there is a significant change that threatens the successful completion of their work?

  1. Unchanged and not survive:
    Do they choose the professional equivalent and not survive? Do they lock up the studio or the lab and never work again?
  2. Change but not survive:
    Do they make decisions that still lead them to dead ends and failure?
  3. Change and survive:
    Or do they use the challenge to ask different questions that find unexpected answers that lead to success?

I asked our Gene Tree Project Composer, Elissa Goodrich, if she has ever had to cope with creative challenges. And I asked our Gene Tree Project Evolutionary Biologist, Dr Anna Syme, about a time when her research didn’t go to plan.

While Elissa and Anna mostly work in very different environments, they share a philosophy that strengthens and sustains them in times of change: There is always value in the experiment.

Elissa’s creative approach is collaborative. She surrounds herself with similarly talented artists who can listen, observe and ask questions. This process allows them to trust in their skills and experiences as they seek out answers and find the courage to say, ‘I don’t know’.

In fact, Elissa is drawn to the beauty and mystery of that question, ‘I don’t know’. Rather than dictate a particular musical outcome or final product, Elissa is interested in allowing the work to find its own path. A sense of curiosity pulls her on and reveals joyful discoveries along the way.

When the curiosity and joy abates Elissa looks for another way into the musical conversation. Sometimes she finds there is nothing left to explore or to be found. And that’s fine, because not everything needs to evolve into a performance or a recording. The experience is still enriching because she can take what she has learnt and what is interesting, and explore it further in future projects.

Dr Anna recalled a project where she was researching marine crustaceans called ostracods that live in shallow, to very deep, seas. Some species have eyes and some don’t.

They hypothesised that the eyes could have been lost. This often happens with deep-sea or cave-dwelling animals. But they were also interested in whether they could have been lost and re-gained, even multiple times. Using DNA and also observing physical features, they found ways to test this statistically by inferring evolutionary relationships and the trajectories of eye presence/absence over millions of years. However, there were several models to use and their results did not agree.

To continue with the research they used both models and added new information from each of the different models. While this meant that the enormous final paper didn’t have one nice result, and took years to get published, it did clearly show that the models could make a large difference to the outcome.

Anna was not disappointed because she doesn’t define unexpected results or failure as bad. On the contrary, she defined success as the simple but profound realisation that you know more than you did before.

Let’s remind ourselves of the three responses to change: Remain unchanged and not survive, Change but not survive, and Change and survive.

Both Elissa and Anna have experienced challenges in their work and both of them have chosen to change, or more accurately adapt, and to keep adapting in order to learn, evolve and find joy in the discovery.

Written by Cressida Bradley, Elissa Goodrich and Anna Syme, inspired by the whole Gene Tree Project.

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