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Looking for the Math and Science in Everything, And Failing to See the Arts

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For R., whose scarf will soon be on its wayReally.

A recent NPR report by Ari Daniel Shapiro was about the confluence of Art and Math at the Joint Mathematics Meeting, recently held in Boston.

Shapiro's piece highlighted the ways in which mathematical formulae are hidden or clearly visible in everyday life, particularly in what we might otherwise consider worlds completely untouched by both. Attendee Stephen Hull, described as a New England math professor who “studies the math of origami and how to use origami to teach math,” pulls out a piece of paper and discusses the use of 90 degree turns saying, “Math is hidden in origami. You just don't see it, but your hands are doing it.” Karl Schaffer, a mathematician at De Anza College co-directs a contemporary dance troupe in California: “I would like the participants to experience creating movement phrases and performing them for each other in ways that deal with mathematical concepts.”

Moving through the participants, Shapiro meets Sarah-Marie Belcastro, a mathematician based in western Massachusetts, who is also a knitter and crocheter and who shows him her project: a crocheted hyperbolic Moebius band. This is in fact currently a really popular form being explored in the worlds of knitting and crochet; I'm willing to excuse Shapiro, who may not be part of either, for acting like Belcastro's work is somehow unique and the only one of its kind.

The crocheted band reminds me of the recent craze for yarn-bombing, the act of covering everyday and usually public objects, like trees and statues, with yarn, by crocheting or knitting onto and around them. I'm a recent and even slightly obsessive knitter as well as an embroiderer, so anything that highlights the sheer fun and beauty of needlecrafts makes me happy because it helps keep my beloved yarn and craft stores stay in business.

I'm less convinced of the idea that yarn-bombers are engaging in some kind of radically political act of reclaiming public space.

I live in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced drastic plans to cut down on residents' access to their own public spaces, and to restrict their rights to protest, using the upcoming G8 summit and anticipated protests as excuses.

We've seen an overall reduction in our rights to hold public demonstrations, but yarn-bombing has not reclaimed any of that. Yarn-bombing is cute and, at the most, a bit naughty but I've never known of any such project that actually made a stronger public and political statement than, “Oh, look, we were here! And we did this!”

Most yarnbombers are white (and about the whiteness of DIY and crafting communities there have, I hope, been tomes written), so they don't worry about the automatic surveillance that comes with being a person of colour. I seriously doubt that I'd be allowed to even climb a tree in Andersonville, let alone begin knitting around it. They're also relatively well-off or at least comfortable: I mean, please, have you seen the price of yarn these days? I'm certainly not giving up any part of my precious yarn stash for some old tree.

I'm not calling for a halt to the practice. It looks like fun, and I'd love to be able to learn how to knit around a multi-dimensional object, so all power to those who do it. Just, please, don't pretend it's anything more than knitting in the round and don't pretend to be engaging in some profoundly subversive form of politics.

That raises the reason why I knit: it gives me pleasure. I love the multiple forms and textures that yarn takes, and I continue to be entranced by the idea that a few hundred yards of mostly straight yarn can be transformed, with nothing more than a pair of needles, into actual fabric. So, I understand Belcastro's fascination with her band, and I'm glad she finds pleasure in being able to fuse two of her passions.

But as I listened to the NPR segment, I was reminded of the persistence of the idea that the Arts need to be made relevant in relation to math and science. I was reminded of that especially annoying series of PSAs some years ago, which included celebrities in what we might call the creative arts, like music and acting, coming on to remind people to encourage funding for the arts because, you know, the arts help make you a better scientist.

I don't doubt, in the least, that math is a crucial part of the world we occupy, or that scientific principles govern our existence (see: gravity), and I'm not averse to exploring and making those connections. There is, however, a crucial difference in acknowledging the interpenetration of Art and Science and establishing a hierarchy between them.

I don't know that the attendees at the JMM were necessarily in favour of such problematic politics, but the segment is certainly indicative of a more general cultural refusal to simply acknowledge that the Arts should and do exist for their own sake. There's a larger and more dangerous message we insist on sending out in such narratives: that Math and Science matter more, and that the Arts need to continually justify their existence in the shadow of the former. Need to get your arts program off the ground? Spend hours  digging up research that music makes for better physicists, and still watch your plans go unfunded. Yes, admittedly, it can be equally difficult to explain why children should study theoretical physics, but the existence of a country whose spending on the arts is severely eclipsed by its spending on defence does guarantee that education in the sciences will always remain a priority because of its perceived greater relevance.

Could we start moving, perhaps with knitting needles or castanets in hand, beyond such a morass? Never mind the mathematical forms in dance, just dance because your body likes it. Does your art make a political statement? Perhaps and perhaps not. Draw a perfect rose or an imperfect one because you love the look of roses. Leave it to people like me to theorise how your aesthetics might reflect a certain ideology of form (and do not mock us for doing so, even if you ignore us) and do it because, really, you'd just like to draw a rose. Knit because you can't get enough of this gorgeous yarn you discovered or because you'd like your friend in bitterly cold Montreal to be able to wrap his neck in a scarf you made.

Maybe Origami can teach you about Math, and maybe Math couldn't exist without Origami. Or, really, maybe, none of that should matter one bit. Maybe Origami can just teach you how to make really, really cool stuff out of nothing but paper.  And that should be enough.

© 2012 Yasmin Nair
The image of the folded dollar is everywhere, but here's the site where I found it.


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