First published: Laboratory Adelaide. August 19, 2016

It's not for nothing that Dr Who's time machine is a police box. It's neat, compact, understandable and represents authority. It sets boundaries. We know where we stand with it. And as the Dr's many incarnations have observed: no one notices it. (Well they would now, but that's a dilemma for another day.)

The genius of the increasingly loopy television series is that, knowingly or otherwise, its creators made the Tardis a metaphor for chaos theory almost before most of the scientific world had grasped its implications, still less accepted it as a serious branch of learning. Even though certain patterns obtain, inside the machine nothing is entirely predictable: the Doctor may or may not reach his preferred destination; he may or may not return exactly to the time and place of his departure; he may or may not meet his companions in the correct order, so that often they know things about him which he has yet to experience and contrariwise. Making a nano-change in space-time may have, literally, earth shattering consequences.

Close up, the outcome is never as expected or as expectable as one supposes but further off one can see the bigger maybe (but not inevitably) more ordered picture. Further off still, that could change again and return to a recognisable pattern. Yet all the while, on the outside the Tardis is a sedate blue box. It implies, though it does not necessarily argue for, a dichotomy between external rationality and internal randomness - or creativity, if you will.

The more I think about it - and I think about it a great deal - the big mistake we have made in public arts policy is to apply the linear assumptions and mechanics of managerial language, and thereby interpretation, to a turbulent domain. We have attempted to make Euclidean an artistic landscape which is essentially Fractal. In building a world of goals, strategies and KPIs with an almost pathological reliance on the "vision thing", we have sought to make orderly that which is innately paradoxical. Above all, we have assumed a constant viewpoint to examine and report on this rather than adopting a multiplicity of long distances and close-ups necessary if any worthwhile understanding were to be reached.

In other words, we have focussed almost exclusively on the little, static, blue box and largely ignored the greater, mutating internal splendour. More than that, we have failed to consider the implications of what happens inside for how we shape what appears outside. It's a police box, right? It's about regulation and definition and locking folks up. It's not about the wild and wonderful freedom pulsating within. That preoccupation misses the point that organisational success can arise from contradiction as well as from consistency.

One standard element of all business plans is a requirement to analyse the external environment in which a given enterprise operates. The demands on arts planning are no different. Rarely is it considered that organisations, of whatever type, not only adapt to their environment but also serve to create it. I work with an intercultural performing arts company in remote Australia that speaks in its objectives of the creation and transmission of "powerful knowledge". It is bold enough to see itself as creating change in the communities in which it works and from which it draws its work. Rather than merely adopting an explicit "vision" (though it has that) it regards itself (and here I paraphrase) as being part of a self-reinforcing cycle of learning and creation.

In the arts above all we need to move beyond the three dimensional modes of measurement which is what the classic notions of KPIs and their friends are. As a consequence, we have become trapped in a Euclidean geometry of management-speak that goes nowhere and explains nothing. The idea of fractional dimensions which started to emerge in many disciplines in the second half of the 20th century gave us a different way to look at this. It became a means to measure the rough and uneven; nature rather than artificial constructs; and uncertainty rather than imagined and imposed patterns. One of its greatest pioneers, Benoit Mandelbrot was fond of saying: Clouds are not spheres, Mountains are not cones. His term "fractal" became a way of seeing not just the apparently uneven but to stretch it in the imagination to infinity. Moreover, it introduced a concept which had almost been abandoned in mathematics though not in applied sciences and which has almost been lost in management theory though not invariably in practice, namely intuition. How much more like the arts this is than an MBA!

Thus Mandelbrot's neologism "fractal" came to be a way of describing all this and of framing a new intuitive geometry of seemingly endless variety and adaptability viewed from ever-shifting angles and distances. It feels like reading a poem, hearing a piece of music, watching a play, doesn’t it? You turn and twist, somersault and double back and perhaps reach a point of enlightenment. But it doesn't feel at all like a foursquare business plan.

No enterprise is a neat and evenly flowing channel. Human experience, large and small, shows that discontinuity is the norm. Boom and bust has long been recognised in macro economics as a recurrent phenomenon of national accounts; population biology likewise. Why then at a micro level have we assumed that a linear pattern can be imposed on business, still less on the inherently uneven (bumpy even) business of art?

We go on and on in cultural discourse about "process" as though creativity was somehow reducible to an equation; that the very experience which of itself is random, discontinuous, and in a way infinite the closer the observer gets, can be flattened into a diagram. What if one said in a strategic plan submitted to a so-called funding body that the overarching goal was "uncertainty"? Or better still "the impossible"? Sadly, I doubt it would get a pass mark aka grant. The assumption has been that if the chance elements could be identified and corralled the outcome could be more easily predicted and thereby controlled or at least ordained. Yet that is the very antithesis of the creative act. To many artists knowing how things would turn out might well negate the point of trying.

What all too often emerges from this is an intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty. Concomitantly, there is a desire to compel an arithmetical assessment of artistic endeavour which is only slightly more elevated that awarding a grade out of ten at school. Stability – or worse still sustainability (ugh!) - is seen as the ultimate defence against anxiety. They may represent what is held popularly to be "common sense" but too often (usually?) they fail the test of imagination.

This is not an argument for the wholesale application of chaos theory to arts organisation or its management (or indeed to any management). There are far too many booby traps along that path. Nor is it intended to add to the mass of largely unconvincing psycho-babble that has already spread like a plague across the field of management theory. I simply raise the question of why in arts companies, increasingly, the outside is forced by our bureaucratic masters to look so much unlike the inside. Why the random power of what we really do in the arts (as organisations rather than individuals) is so seldom allowed to shape how we seem and thereby how we represent ourselves to the world.

It is true that the arts are at best systems of interest which under certain circumstances may behave in regular, predictable operational ways, but under other conditions exhibit behaviour in which regularity and predictability are lost. We may arrange seasons, exhibitions, festivals, publish books, sell tickets, stream, download and engage diverse people and technologies to pursue goals and perform tasks. All of these, in the short to medium term, may conform to a pattern and exhibit certain common predictable perhaps unexceptional traits. But within the performance, painting, book, cd, film thus traded there are contradictions, discontinuities and endlessly self-replicating complexities totally at odds with and pushing against the boundaries of all this order that are simultaneously reshaping the external environment within which the orderly process seems to be conducted.

What is extraordinary in arts organisations today is that the imposed methodology of strategic planning and operations -which are at base simplistic, formal and structured - bear little relation to the internal culture or practice of the making or interpretation of work that is fundamentally open-ended, complex and tentative. One can argue that the former exists to establish and perhaps guide, if not guard, the boundaries within which the latter exists. But if one considers the essentially chaotic (in the mathematical rather than popular sense) culture of the rehearsal room or studio which is permissive of ambiguity, discontinuity and the like, one can see that it indeed depends utterly on those elements for its dynamics and therefore its result.

This is perhaps obvious in evolving new work. But even in pre-existing work (the weight of a pesante, the speed of an andante the outcome of which in the phrase, from phrase to phrase, in the movement, and from movement to movement) any musician will attest is not strategic but intuitive, often unpredicted and unpredictable. Who in an ensemble has not looked at their colleagues in surprise on realising where a subtle change has led them? Experts argue where the Scherzo of Mahler's 6th Symphony should go not out of some sterile academic debate but because, like the tiresomely over-quoted butterfly that might change the Amazonian weather, the effect of its placement may be wild and uncertain on the whole. This is to say nothing of the spellbinding, sudden, unpredictable illumination of a moment in working with a dramatic text. Examples abound.

Like the Tardis, complexity, and if you like chaos, is bigger on the inside than the outside. It's not for nothing that contradiction, irregularity and a bouncy ride await those bold enough to enter. Lasciate ogne speranza, as it were. While Dante clearly intended speranza as "hope" (and it is usually translated as such) he might just as well have meant "expectation". If ever there was a Tardis it is his "Inferno" and the most recent Dr, the endlessly grumpy, Peter Capaldi would have made a perfect, humourless Vergil for it.

Justin Macdonnell
January 2016