What’s the Problem With Weird?

A blue mini pedals along atop the water, a man’s head catches fire, a woman rows her bed along with twin oars whilst lampposts erect from submergence like surfacing U-boats, and that’s before we even get to the flame wielding pixies and naked gods.

Yup. You go to watch something like Illotopie’s Water Fools, a theatrical and thrillingly disorienting piece of… well I’m not exactly sure what to call it – theatre? Dance? Art? – whatever it is, by the end you find your mind lying frazzled and slightly askew, and it stays that way for a while after.

I went along to the production not knowing what to expect. Illotopie are an internationally acclaimed theatre company, they’re French, they’ve designed bespoke shows to be performed at art festivals from Bangkok to Buenos Aires. This production, Water Fools, so said the literature, was to be a dazzling and innovative piece, unique, devised by artist and performer, Bruno Roubicek, and to be staged entirely atop the still open water of the Salford Quays. Different was all I expected, and that it was.

The performance, accompanied throughout by the whimsical bobbing chime of fairground melodies from yesteryear, and, every so often, by some pretty impressive fireworks, is an at times cheery, other times dark, but always strange and evocative spectacle one might imagine to have been conjured from the dreams and nightmares of Dante himself.

What I found as I watched, and what surprised me, was how compelling the whole thing was in large part due to, rather than in spite of, its incomprehensibility. Its sheer weirdness. A sort of, I-don’t-exactly-know-what-I’m-watching-but-I-like-it kind of feeling.

Looking at the responses to the event afterwards on Twitter, I found I was far from alone. I think this comment from straubero @straubero caught it best.

‘Like a macabre crazy dream with fireworks. Tried to rationalise it… Then stopped and just enjoyed the madness. #waterfools

It’s that last sentence that got me; the need to stop thinking in order to enjoy, or perhaps a better word is access, certain things. Things that are different. Outside the norm. Things that are novel.

The late Colin Martindale, an eminent creativity researcher at the University of Maine, saw the need for novelty as an inbuilt feature of being an artist. ‘Cognitive disinhibition’ he and others called it, the tendency to prioritise new sensations and experiences, a trait he related to the cognitive processes involved in ideation. Or what we like to call, creativity: The ability to form new but useable ideas.

Researchers in this field dating all the way back to Vygotsky, Piaget and others during the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, have defined creativity as the ability to combine seemingly disparate elements in novel ways. Like an inventor who looks at electricity and sound waves and sees the telephone, or who looks at the telephone and computers and sees the internet, or who looks at the internet and phones and sees… well, you get the picture.

What Martindale and his colleagues found was that the experience of novelty itself can often stimulate this ability. Like laying new rail tracks for thoughts to travel down. Strangeness, he said, opens up the mind. And in the words of one eminent thinker;

‘a mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old habits,’ Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

A bit of weirdness then, so goes the thinking, is good for you. It dissolves mental barriers, broadens your perspective, allows you to see the relationships and connections between things. In short, makes you more creative.

And so I guess the question it raises is why do we tend to be so resistant to novelty? Why is our default setting to kick open our inner toolkit and reach first for the grumpy worn handle of rationale. Everything must be understood, annotated, its meaning rendered and explained fully before we can accept, embrace, or in the case of the very strange Water Fools production, even enjoy it, whether that ‘it’ is an idea or a person or even a community of people. To value difference, historically, has often been the habit humanity has had to learn, and re-learn, over and over again.

The question is why.

What do you think?

What’s our problem with weird?

What’s the last really wacky experience you had? Did you like it? Did you dislike it? How’d it make you feel?

What do you think about weird stuff in general – films, art, clothing, behaviour, music, books, TV (I’m still, all these years later, trying to get my head around Twin Peaks)?

Why do you think we – you and I and all of us – have that niggling discomfort and suspicion toward things that are outside the norm? Or if you don’t, tell us your secret.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

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