Ancient Schema and Technoetic Creativity

Mel Alexenberg, Ariel University Center of Samaria       

Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2006


creativity, ancient schema, kabbalah, imaging system, biofeedback, technoetic art


Ancient schematic systems originating in the Jewish and Chinese traditions that demonstrate dynamic integration of human consciousness with the material world offer fresh insights into the process through which technoetic art forms are created at the intersections of art, science, technology, and culture.  Kabbalah is Judaism’s esoteric tradition the reveals the deep structure of biblical consciousness through a symbolic language, conceptual schema, and graphic model for exploring the creative process. The ‘Tree of Life’ schema is a network of 22 pathways linking ten nodes (sephirot) that represent stages in the creative process.  The first three sephirot represent the artists’ undifferentiated intention to create and the cognitive dyad in which a flash of insight begins to crystallize into a viable idea.  Two affective dyads, largess/restraint and success/gracefulness, are balanced by the sephirah (singular for sephirot) of Beauty, the aesthetic heart of the entire process.  The ninth sephirah funnels the integrated flow of intention, thought, and emotion into the world of physical action that is the tenth sephirah.  The kabbalistic schema is used to trace the process of creating Inside/Outside:P’nim/Panim, a technoetic moist media artwork in which a biofeedback imaging system forms a feedback loop between changing mind/body processes and corresponding changes in digital self-portraits.

Ancient schematic systems that demonstrate dynamic integration of human consciousness with the material world offer fresh insights into the process through which technoetic art forms are created at the intersections of art, science, technology, and culture.   Two such schematic systems emerged in ancient times at both the east and west ends of Asia – China and Israel.  There are significant parallels between the ancient Chinese system of change based upon the vitality of Qi, Yin-Yang, and the Five Elements and the kabbalistic system of movement through 22 pathways and ten sephirot linking worlds of intention, thought, emotion, and action.

These two spiritual traditions better address postmodern philosophical underpinnings of new media art than the Hellenistic worldview that dominated the visual arts from the Renaissance until the beginning of modernism.  In his seminal work, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Thorleif Boman demonstrates how the dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and action-centered characteristics of Hebraic consciousness stands in contrast to the static, peaceful, moderate, and passive Greek consciousness.   Conceptual energies of contemporary technoetic arts are confluent with the verve and dynamism of Hebraic thought and experience that is shared by traditional Chinese philosophy.

Wengao Huang, who earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Zhejiang University in China, describes how a traditional Chinese schema relates the creation of new media art to complexity science and artificial life in his paper, “Self-organization, New Media and Traditional Chinese Philosophy.”  In the Chinese schema:

“Qi is a dynamic model of nonlinear self-organization for circulation and interchange of material, energy, and information within a system and between as system and its environment.  Yin can be considered as a tendency of self-organization towards stabilization, and Yang can be considered as a tendency towards adaptation.  The Five Elements is a self-regulating network achieving homeostasis through relationships of generating and restricting each other.”

It is a holographic and fractal system in which all elements are contained within all elements through endless levels.  Huang concludes that new media arts, with their emphasis on connections, transformations, and emergence, closely relate to the ancient Chinese spirit that explores the inner living force of an artwork as an embodiment to the Qi of the artist with the Qi of the universe.

Both ancient Chinese and Hebraic spiritual traditions share schema that are non-linear, holographic, dynamic systems that exhibit connectivity, immersion, interaction, transformation, and emergence.  These are the very characteristics that are used to describe interactive artworks that are replacing the cult of the object d’art with process-based artforms of the future that explore moistmedia, the interspace between the dry world of virtuality and the wet world of biology in which spiritually numinous artforms emerge (Ascott 2000). This paper explores Hebraic consciousness through a kabbalistic schema that traces the process of creating a technoetic moistmedia artwork in which a biofeedback imaging system forms a feedback loop between changing mind/body processes and corresponding changes in digital self-portraits

Tree of Life: The Kabbalistic Schematic System        

The kabbalistic system is a symbolic language and conceptual schema for exploring two parallel creative processes – human and divine.  Kabbalah is Judaism’s esoteric tradition the reveals the deep structure of biblical consciousness as a metaphorical way of thinking rather than a body of knowledge to be seized.  It offers choreography for a dance of the mind to be apprehended by the part of the mind that appreciates poetry and hears its inner music (Green 2003).

The noetic stages of the creative process are found in the biblical description of the characteristics of the artist Betzalel who was ‘filled with a divine spirit of Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge, and a talent for all types of craftsmanship’ (Exodus 35:31).  Human creativity finds its divine parallel in Proverbs 3:19-20: ‘God founded the earth in Wisdom.  He established heavens in Understanding.  With His Knowledge the depths opened and skies dripped dew.’  The next six stages in the creative process are affective stages listed in Chronicles 1:29:  ‘The Compassion, the Strength, the Beauty, the Success, the Gracefulness, even everything [as the Foundation] of heaven and earth.  The final stage is the Kingdom of time and space in which intentions, thoughts, and emotions are brought together and realized in the everyday world of action.   Abraham Isaac Kook draws on the biblical books of Job and Jeremiah to elucidate the spiritual energies inherent in the artist’s creative process.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       “Whoever is endowed with the soul of a creator must create works of imagination and thought, for the flame of the soul rises by itself and one cannot impede it on its course…. The creative individual brings vital, new light from the higher source where originality emanates to the place where it has not previously been manifest, from the place that ‘no bird of prey knows, nor has the falcon’s eye seen’ (Job 28:7), ‘that no man has passed, nor has any person dwelt’” (Jeremiah 2:6).

The ten stages in the ‘Tree of Life’ schema in Figure 1 are nodes called sephirot linked through 22 pathways corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  The pulsing heart of the model is the sephirah of Beauty, the aesthetic gateway through which noetic pathways pass to meet will and affect and the threshold to action.  The sephirah of Beauty is associated with the Bible’s preeminent divine name YHVH, which should be translated as ‘Is-Was-Will Be’ rather than as ‘God.’  There is a precognitive sephirah of will that precedes Wisdom and Understanding called Crown, which is the first stage in the emanation of divine light from the Infinite Oneness.

Although human creation and divine creation are viewed as parallel processes, kabbalah does not tolerate any duality between God and humanity.  It insists on an all-embracing oneness in which human creativity exists within divine creation.  It teaches that in reality there is no God.  A Hebrew speaker gives God no name.  He calls God, Hashem, literally ‘The Name.’  All the divine names in the Bible are different facets of divine light corresponding to the sephirot, not names of God Himself who remains nameless.  Hashem does not exist in reality.  Hashem is reality and beyond.  We do not create alongside Hashem, we create new worlds within Hashem, within the reality that is Hashem.   God is called Makom, literally ‘Place.’  Hashem is the place from which all consciousness flows and within which all action takes place, the all-embracing context for everything (Aaron 2001).

Worlds and Angels

The kabbalistic schema proposes four worlds – Emanation, Creation, Formation, and Action – derived from the biblical passage, ‘All who is called by my name and my honor whom I have created, whom I have formed, and even acted to make and liberate people who are blind though they have eyes and deaf though they have ears.’ (Isaiah 43:7)   We are invited to open our eyes and ears to fresh perceptions that originate in the precognitive spiritual world of Emanation, become apparent in the cognitive world of Creation, become colored with emotions in the affective world of Formation, and are realized in the material world of Action. 

Angels reside in the worlds of Creation, Formation, and Action as discrete, unique packets of thoughts, emotions, or actions.  Since the world of Emanation is a holistic, undifferentiated, precognitive realm, no angels reside there.  Just as no two thoughts are exactly the same, just as emotions change according to circumstances of time and place, and just as each act in the everyday world does not repeat itself, so an angel is totally the manifestation of a single essence.   Angels also serve as messengers transferring vital plenty between worlds.   (Steinsaltz 1992).  Noetic angels in the world of Creation are called seraphim.  Affective angels in the world of Formation are hayot and angels in the world of Action are ophanim.

Not only can ancient spiritual systems provide insight into digital age art, but conversely electronic technologies can help us understand ancient wisdom.  The kabbalists schema of invisible worlds that influence our every action could be dismissed by the rational mind a century ago as metaphysical poppycock.  New media of extended mind and global range, however, have transformed metaphysics into physics.  Consider that while you are sitting quietly reading my words thousands of events from throughout the world exist simultaneously in the room with you.  If you have a radio, TV set, or wireless Internet connection you could tune into all the events that have been silently present in your room all the time.  These events can be transformed into signals of electromagnetic energy that cannot be perceived by our ordinary senses.  But they are here now, nonetheless, permeating our environment, even passing unnoticed through our bodies.  With the right receivers, these hidden worlds are revealed to us. (Alexenberg 1988)

No only can we gain insight into alternative worlds through experiencing telecommunications technologies, but we can also have a new perception of angels through Internet technology.  Did you notice how a web page that you are receiving does not appear all at once on your monitor?  It comes up on your screen in parts until the whole home page finally comes together.  The web server sending the digitized image to the requesting browser breaks the image up into data packets.  Each packet is assigned an ID number and routed by routers from one city to the next through the available telecommunications pathways.  For example, a single image is deconstructed and routed through cyberspace between Jerusalem and Beijing along multiple pathways.  When the data packets reach Beijing, they are reassembled in the correct sequence based on the ID numbers that were assigned in Jerusalem.  The transmission control protocol (TPC) ensures that all the data packets get to the requesting computer with no pieces missing as the whole image is rematerialized.  Angels are like data packets. (Alexenberg 2006)

The primary direction in the creative process is from the world of Emanation to the world of Creation to the world of Formation to the world of Action.  The first stage in the process is the sephirah of Crown associated with the precognitive world of Emanation.  The next two stages, the sephirot of Wisdom and Understanding are associated with the cognitive world of Creation.  The following six sephirot, Compassion, Strength, Beauty, Success, Gracefulness, and Foundation, are associated with the affective world of Formation.   The final stage is the sephirah of Kingdom of time and space in which intentions, thoughts, and emotions are brought together and realized in the everyday world of Action.  

Crown: Faith, Pleasure and Intention

The creative process begins in the spiritual sephirah of Crown (keter), the preformed preconscious realm of faith, pleasure, and intention.  Just as a crown floats above the head and is not part of the body, so the sephirah of Crown is an undifferentiated longing to create that precedes the cognitive realm.  Each of the other nine sephirot in the cognitive, affective, and active worlds are associated with body parts.  Crown is made up of three elements – faith that one can create, anticipation that the creative process is pleasurable, and intention to create.  Without this self-confidence, hope for gratification, and will to create, the creative process has no beginning.  

My artwork described in this paper had its beginning in the sephirah of Crown.  Although I had no idea what I wanted to do, my background as a biologist turned artist working at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies gave me the will and confidence to create artworks at the interface of art and science.  I had learned from years of experience as an artist that there were great pleasures to be had from the aesthetic highs that come with the creative process.  Crown sets the stage for the sephirah of Wisdom that is coupled with the sephirah of Understanding to create Knowledge.    

Wisdom and Understanding: From Flash of Insight to First Thoughts

The inner experience of the sephirah of Wisdom (hokhmah) requires a selfless state. The nullification of the ego opens gateways to supraconscious/subconscious realms.  When active seeking ceases, when consciously preoccupied with unrelated activities, when we least expect it, the germ of the creative idea bursts into our consciousness.  This sudden flash of insight is what the kabbalah calls wisdom.  It is the transition from nothingness to being, from potential to the first moment of existence.  In biblical words, “Wisdom shall be found in nothingness” (Job 28:12).

I was removed from my studio/laboratory and classroom at MIT where I taught the graduate seminar, ‘Art, Technology, and Culture.’  I was standing in a synagogue on a Sabbath morning following the chanting of the weekly biblical portion from a hand-written Torah scroll.  My absorption in the rhythm of the chanting of the Torah put me into a meditative state.  I was passively listening, open to receiving.  Indeed, the word ‘kabbalah’ means receptivity.  

My undifferentiated attention to the meditative chanting was suddenly interrupted as my eyes focused on the letters P-N-I-M in the passage, ‘Hashem would speak to Moses face to face (PaNIM el PaNIM), just as a person speaks to a friend….  He said, ‘You will not be able to see My face, for no human can see My face and live.’ (Exodus: 33:11, 20).  A flash of insight shifted my consciousness into the sephirah of Wisdom as I saw the word written with the letters P-N-I-M as P’NIM rather than as in the traditional vocalization PaNIM.  Since the Hebrew in the Torah scroll is written without vowels, the passage could have been read as P’NIM el P’NIMP’NIM means ‘inside.’  Rather than ‘face to face,’ the biblical passage could be read as ‘inside to inside,’ a heart to heart talk as between friends. When I returned to my seat, I departed from the Wisdom sephirah and entered the Understanding sephirah 

The shapeless idea that ignited the process began to take form in the sephirah of Understanding (binah).  Like the sperm that is received by the ovum in the womb, the unformed germ of an idea from the sephirah of Wisdom enters into the sephirah of Understanding to form a fertilized ovum of Knowledge.  This union of masculine Wisdom and feminine Understanding to create Knowledge is related to the biblical passage, “Adam knew his wife Eve” (Genesis 4:1).  Like a hologram in which all the information permeates all of its parts, all ten sephirot exist within each of the ten sephirot.  Therefore, there are feminine aspects of the masculine sephirah of Wisdom and masculine aspects the feminine sephirah of Understanding.  Together, Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge form the cognitive realm of thoughts.  Although Knowledge is not one of the sephirot itself, it unites Wisdom, the right side of the brain, and Understanding, the left side of the brain, and also becomes the gateway to the next six sephirot that form the affective realm.

I told my son, Ari, who was working with me at MIT about my new idea of creating an artwork revealing the interplay between panim and p’nim.  By beginning to play in my mind with my fresh insight, by vocalizing it, and by communicating it to others, I found myself in the sephirah of Understanding.  What did Moses see when he spoke to Hashem face to face?  Perhaps he saw the divinity in himself since the mirror image of his name (Moshe) spelled M-Sh-H is H-Sh-M (Hashem).  What does the Torah mean when it tells us that we cannot see the face of Hashem, only His back?  Perhaps the presence of Hashem in the present is impossible for us to see.  We can only apprehend divine providence in hindsight.  All manner of thoughts on transforming panim/p’nim in an artwork danced through my mind.   

Compassion and Strength: From Loving All to Setting Limits

The fourth sephirah, Compassion (hesed), represents largess, the stage in the creative process that is open to all possibilities. All of them seem to be attractive options that I would love to do.  Compassion is counterbalanced by the fifth sephirah of Strength (gevurah), restraint, the power to set limits, to make judgments, to have the discipline to choose between myriad options.  It demands that I make hard choices about which paths to take and which options to abandon. 

I thought of a multitude of artistic options open to me for creating artworks that reveal interplay between inner consciousness and outer face.  As an MIT artist, my mind gravitated to creating digital self-generated portraits in which internal mind/body processes and one’s facial countenance engage in vital dialogue.  I narrowed my options down to designing in my mind a biofeedback imaging system in which a dynamic feedback loop is formed between changing mind/body processes and corresponding changes in digital video images of an active participant’s face.

Beauty: Aesthetic Balance

As I felt deep satisfaction with my choice, I departed from the sephirah of Strength to the next stage, the sixth sephirah, Beauty (tiferet).  This sephirah represents a beautiful balance between the counter forces of largess and restraint in the sephirot of Compassion and Strength.  It is the feeling of harmony between all my possible options and the choices I had made.  The sephirah of Beauty is the aesthetic core of the creative process in which harmonious integration of openness and closure is experienced as loveliness, splendor, and truth.  Pathways from all the sephirot converge at Beauty.  Each of the sephirot relates to a body part and to a divine name.  Beauty is the heart linked to all the other parts with pathways like veins and arteries.  It is the essential aesthetic quality associated with the divine name YHVH that we call Hashem.  The noetic aesthetics of Hashem shines brightest through the sephirah of Beauty where the dyads of Wisdom and Understanding, Compassion and Strength, Success and Gracefulness meet, and where the Crown of will and faith connects to the threshold of action in the sephirah of Foundation.

The pleasure anticipated in the sephirah of Crown is realized in the sephirah of BeautyIt is the aesthetic joy experienced as the core of the creative process in both art and science.  ‘Artists and scientists agree that one of the powerful rewards – and perhaps a powerful driving force and guide in these creative acts – is the satisfaction of a sense of beauty, the satisfaction of a certain aesthetic sensibility’ (Cassidy 1962: 58).  C. P. Snow proposes that the two cultures, the sciences and the arts, meet in their shared experience of aesthetic joy.

“Anyone who has ever worked in any science knows how much esthetic joy he has obtained.  That is, in the actual activity of science, in the process of making a discovery, however humble it is, one can’t help feeling an awareness of beauty.  The subjective experience, the esthetic satisfaction, seems exactly the same as the satisfaction one gets from writing a poem or a novel, or composing a piece of music.  I don’t think anyone has succeeded in distinguishing between them.  The literature of scientific discovery is full of this esthetic joy.”  (Snow 1961: 256-259)     

Success and Gracefulness: Splendid Orchestration 

The seventh sephirah, Success (netzakh), is the feeling of being victorious in the quest for significance.  I felt that I had the power to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing my artwork.  Netzakh can also mean ‘to conduct’ or ‘orchestrate’ as in the word that begins many of the Psalms.  I had the confidence that I could orchestrate all the aspects of creating a moist media artwork that would forge a vital dialogue between dry pixels and wet biomolecules, between cyberspace and real space, and between human consciousness and digital imagery.   I knew that with the help of my colleagues at MIT, I had the resources to build the biofeedback imaging system for my Inside/Outside:P’nim/Panim artwork to explore the dynamic interplay between carbon-based biosystems and silicon-based cybersystems.

The eighth sephirah, Gracefulness (hod), is the glorious feeling that the final shaping of the idea is going so smoothly that it seems as effortless as the movements of a graceful dancer.  The sephirah of Success is an active self-confidence in contrast with the sephirah of Gracefulness which is a passive confidence born of a trust in divine providence that ‘all will be good.’  It is the power to advance smoothly with the determination and perseverance born of deep inner commitment.  The word hod connotes both ‘acknowledgement’ (hoda’ah) and ‘splendor’ in the sense of an aura-like ‘reverberation’ (hed) of light.  The sephirah of hod is ‘the acknowledgement of a supreme purpose in life and the total submission of self which it inspires; it serves to endow the source of one’s inspiration with an aura of splendor and majesty’ (Ginsburgh website).  It is the wonderful feeling that all is going as it should.

Foundation: Integrating Everything

The ninth sephirah, Foundation (yesod), is the sensuous bonding of Success and Gracefulness in a union that leads to the birth of the fully formed idea.  It funnels the integrated flow of intention, thought, and emotion of the previous eight sephirot into the world of physical action.  In Chronicles 1:29, this sephirah is called All or Everything (kol).  It channels everything that was playing out in my mind into the craft of making the artwork.  It transports my private mental world into a public environmental arena in which I create a product that communicates my noetic aesthetics.

Kingdom: Noble Realization

This tenth sephirah of Kingdom (malkhut) is the noble realization of my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space. It involves all the practical details that go into physically making an artwork.

Ari and I experimented with alternative technological options for creating a digital portrait in which outside flows from inside and inside flows from outside in a continuously flowing feedback loop. In our studio/laboratory at MIT, we developed a system using biofeedback from brain waves sensed by electrodes connecting the participant’s head to an electroencephalograph.  For our museum exhibition, however, difficulty placing electrodes on people’s heads required that we redesign the system.  We built a console in which a participant seated in front of a monitor would place a finger in a plethysmograph, which measures internal body states by monitoring blood flow, while under the gaze of a video camera.  After constructing a working system at MIT, we brought it to New York and installed it at the Yeshiva University Museum as one of the 25 technoetic artworks in the LightsOROT exhibition that Otto Piene and I created in collaboration with research fellows at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.   The dialogic artwork is described in the exhibition catalog:  

“A feedback loop is created in which changes in one’s internal mind/body state changes a video image of one’s external self.  It is a video/computer graphics self-portrait painted by the flow of one’s inner river of light.  A person sits before a video camera.  Her body is connected to a biofeedback sensor.  She watches a real-time naturalistic image of herself on the video monitor.  Information about her internal mind/body processes is digitized and conveyed to the central processing unit of the computer system.  The video image is modified by a specially designed software package.  It can be modified by changing color or size, by stretching, elongating, extending, rotating, replicating, superimposition or by other computer graphics effects.  For example, the participant sees herself turn green and is shocked by the sight.  The shock, in turn, changes the biofeedback information causing the computer to modify her self-portrait again.  Her green face now becomes elongated.  Changes in body processes affect changes in the video image.  The perceived video image, in turn, stimulates the mind/body changes, and so on in a continuous feedback loop like the unending flow of a Torah scroll.” (Alexenberg and Piene 1988: 55) 

From Kingdom to Crown: New Beginnings

When the artwork in completed and installed in the museum, it ceases to belong to its creator.  It gains a life of its own as it invites the active participation of the visitors to the museum.  In the sephirah of Kingdom, the satisfaction of seeing the finished product is coupled with postpartum letdown.  The disengagement from the intense involvement in the creative process carries with it feelings of sadness, of loss, of emptiness.  On the other hand, the letdown from the aesthetic fire can become what philosopher George Santayana calls ‘aesthetic glow’ (Santayana 1962). I experienced this glow seeing the enthusiastic response of people engaged in P’nim/Panim:Inside/Outside and receiving positive feedback from my colleagues and art critics.        

The depressing void alternating with aesthetic glow in Kingdom sets the stage for a new undifferentiated conation stage in Crown.  The two royal sephirot, Kingdom and Crown, the end and the beginning of the creative process, merge and become one.  Kabbalists often stack the Tree of Life diagram so that a chain is formed with the Kingdom sephirah of the upper diagram becoming the Crown sephirah of the diagram below it.    

The stage was set for Crown to invite a new flash of insight in Wisdom.  The new insight popped into consciousness as a question.  How could we extend one-on-one human-machine interaction to a global network of interactions, from private technoetic art to public telematic art?  I sensed that art of the future would explore the interfaces between real space and cyberspace, between individual and community, and between carbon-based humans and silicon-based machines.  My response to my question flowed from Understand to Action as the entire creative process moved from individual to global community.   

I was able to use a computer mouse developed in Jerusalem that enables blind people to “see” through the sense of touch.  The mouse has indentations for fingers to feel a grid of pin-like protrusions that move up and down independently to trace an image from a computer monitor onto the blind person’s fingertips.  Through the World Wide Web, people worldwide can share images with blind people of those things they would most like to see if they had vision. This Cybersight artwork reformulates the biblical commandment, ‘You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind’ (Leviticus 19:14) as a positive one: ‘Restore sight to the blind so they do not stumble.’     

One of the leading kabbalistic thinkers of the 20th century, the Lubavicher Rebbe, teaches that the sweeping technological changes we are experiencing today were predicted some two thousand years ago in the Zohar, the preeminent text of kabbalah.  It describes how the outburst in scientific knowledge and technological advancement would be paralleled by an increase in sublime wisdom or spirituality.  Integrating the wisdom of the mind and the wisdom of the soul, which is the role of the artist, can begin to usher true unity into the world.

“The divine purpose of the present information revolution, which gives an individual unprecedented power and opportunity, is to allow us to share knowledge – spiritual knowledge – with each other, empowering and unifying individuals everywhere.  We need to use today’s interactive technology not just for business or leisure but to interlink as people – to create a welcome environment for the interaction of our souls, our hearts, our visions.” (Schneerson 1995: 191)


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Contributor details

Mel Alexenberg is a biologist turned artist who creates artworks at the interface between art, science, technology, and culture. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He is Professor Emeritus of Art and Jewish Thought at the Ariel University Center of Samaria, Israel, and Head of Emuna College School of the Arts in Jerusalem, and formerly on the faculties of Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University. In the United States, he served as Professor and Chairman of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute, Associate Professor of Art and Education at Columbia University, Dean of Visual Arts at New World School of the Arts in Miami, and Research Fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. He is the author of The Future of Art in the Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books).