The art of slow change

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Art, says Daedalus, seems to divide into two main camps. Some arts are quite static (pictures, statues and so on). Others (music, cinema, ballet) supply rapid change for a short time. But our aesthetic sense evolved in a world of constant slight change. Much of the charm of the natural world, such as the sea, the sky, the landscape, and indeed the appreciation of human fellowship, depends on slow change within certain expected limits. Daedalus is now exploring this neglected aesthetic.

The only current art form of slow change, gardening, gives constant pleasure from the steady subtle development of the plants. It is remarkably popular. But no engineering structures are designed to grow like plants. Instead, our buildings and monuments, though static, usually aim to be ‘new and exciting’. This is self-defeating; shock and excitement are the most fleeting, least sensible goals for an architect or mason. Yet a building which changed slowly all the time would pose daunting technical challenges. So as a pilot project, Daedalus is devising a slowly-changing statue. Its pose and demeanour will drift subtly all the time. Instead of rapidly fading into the unnoticed urban background, it will retain interest and value to the frequent viewer.

Similarly, modern display technology should make possible a slowly-changing picture, perhaps like the ageing portrait of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's story. It would drift slowly and subtly on a timescale of hours, days or months. It might play out a slow story, drift seemingly at random, or follow some environmental lead; but every time one glanced at it, it would be subtly different.

The most pleasing forms of change will take a long time to recognize and optimize — existing art forms have taken centuries to reach their current state of impasse. But in utilitarian mood, Daedalus likes the idea of driving his pictures or statues from the weather forecast, or the stock-market index. The viewer might come to think — or at least to intuit — ‘The mayor looks happy today, it's going to be sunny’ or ‘Keynes has had an angry slouch all week, maybe it's time to shift a little into gilts’. Municipal patrons of the arts will support DREADCO's project more open-handedly if it serves a practical and civic-minded purpose.

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The further Inventions of Daedalus (Oxford University Press), 148 past Daedalus columns expanded and illustrated, is now on sale. Special Nature offer: m.curtis@nature.com

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Jones, D. The art of slow change. Nature 402, 861 (1999) doi:10.1038/47215

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