Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Butterfly Effect

by Paul Gordon Emerson

Sometimes a phrase or a word finds its way into the lexicon and becomes a symbol. "Just do it," comes to mind -- and that's a brand slogan. Sometimes these things become a catchphrase for strength; sometimes for weakness. And then there are phrases that become popular despite the fact that none of us really know what in the world they mean. That would be "the butterfly effect." How is it, exactly, that a monarch butterfly beating gorgeous yet stunningly fragile wings in Chile can have any impact at all on whether it rains in China? Getting caught up in the scientific truth of that is probably the source of endless Science Channel programs, but getting caught up in it misses the point. In a turn-of-the-century beaux arts mansion on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington in the first week of April I saw it first-hand, and it had nothing to do with high pressure and air flow. If its possible to witness a change in the wind brought about by a tiny creature whose habitat is being obliterated by loggers clear-cutting to get us our hardwood floors, it was there on a much older hardwood. It was there in the form of a different kind of wind -- that generated by inspiration.

Why we make dances, or any form of art, is a similarly obtuse question, because we've been doing it as long as we can clearly identify ourselves as being human. Whatever the synaptic "air flow," we trace civilization back to our earliest forms of art. We celebrate the birth of our humanity in the creation of our paintings, our buildings and our delicately detailed jewelry and ornamentation. We are creatures who seem to need to do this. And getting lost in the science gets us similarly lost from the point that to make art is to find symbolic forms for changing the world. Each impression is individual, because we can only take it in individually. But collectively, each impression becomes multiplied and creates a high pressure zone of its own kind, and the wind comes and the climate changes -- not in temperature change and the making of monsoons, but in the perceptual and human change that leads us to gather, to watch, to question and to ask. This is what Isabel is doing in the forms she makes and the questions she causes us to ask. Whether the temperature is any different today outside a village in China, it is different, ever so slightly, in that mansion on Mass. Ave. The people who came to to that mansion, the residence of the Ambassador from Chile, on a hard storming and cold April night, came into a building with one mood -- often as strangers -- and left a tiny bit changed. Incrementally changed. But 70 people changed by a degree can add up. And this is how art takes on the world in the "modern age."

We are extraordinarily fortunate that Ambassador Fernandez saw his home as a vehicle to celebrate this possibility, and to celebrate a gifted artist from Chile. Her idea and inspiration comes from a creature living in a long strip of land on the Pacific. It would seem that such a tiny creatures life, or death, can have absolutely no impact on those of us in Washington. But the world is smaller now, and the effect -- the butterfly effect -- of the work was felt thousands of miles beyond. In Washington.

Apocryphal or not. Metaphorical or not, the butterfly effect works. The question becomes, will those of us caught up by and in it do what we can, and what we must, for the creatures who inspired it.

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