Technoetic Creativity: A Kabbalistic Perspective

Mel Alexenberg

Intellect Quarterly, No. 4, Summer 2006. (This paper and full-color photographs of my artwork can be accessed at: )

Kabbalah, Judaism’s esoteric tradition, provides a symbolic language and conceptual schema that facilitates understanding the dynamics of the creative process in contemporary technoetic art – art that arises from the confluence of art, science, technology, and consciousness research.    The kabbalistic model of creative process is a metaphorical way of thinking derived from the deep structure of biblical consciousness.   It is a choreography of the mind that reveals a progression that draws inspiration down into the material world from a higher source where originality emanates, 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).   I use the kabbalistic model to portray my process of creating the responsive technoetic artwork, Inside/Outside:P’nim/Panim, at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  

The KBL root of the Hebrew word KaBaLah first appears in the Bible in the word maKBiL, which means “parallel.”  The biblical artist Betzalel and his artistic collaborators covered the Tabernacle with two large tapestries each having fifty loops parallel to each other (Exodus 26:5 and Exodus 36:12).  One symbolizes divine creation and the other symbolizes human creativity.  Kabbalah also refers to receiving the esoteric tradition from one generation to the next.  I hear the word kabbalah spoken frequently in Israel as the supermarket checkout clerk hands me the long paper ribbon saying, “kabbalah shelkhah,”  “your receipt.”  It is meaningful to understanding kabbalah as a down-to-earth mystical tradition that a supermarket computer printout and an ancient esoteric tradition share the same word.   We all stand illiterate before the secret language of the digital age – bar-codes on boxes and bottles – that only supermarket lasers can read. 

Kabbalah explores how inspiration is drawn down into our everyday world in ten stages called sephirot (sephirah in singular) that are derived from biblical passages describing both the artist and God as creators of worlds (Exodus 35:31 and Chronicles 1:29). The first stage in the creative process is the sephirah, Crown – 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.  Crown sets the stage for the sephirah of Wisdom that requires a selfless state, nullification of the ego that opens gateways to supraconscious and 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).

In synagogue on the Sabbath day, I was absorbed in the rhythm of the chanting of words from the Torah scroll following them with my eyes.  I was far removed from my studio/laboratory at MIT when I suddenly realized that the word for face panim and for inside p’nim are written with the same Hebrew letters.  I sensed that I needed to create portraits in which dialogue between the outside face and inside feelings become integrally one.  When I told my son what had just dawned on me, my mind left the sephirah of Wisdom for the sephirah of UnderstandingThe shapeless idea that ignited the process began to take form in Understanding

The first three sephirot represent the artist’s intention to create and the cognitive dyad in which a flash of insight begins to crystallize into a viable idea.  The fourth sephirah, Compassion, represents largess, the stage in the creative process that is open to all possibilities, myriad attractive options that I would love to do.  Compassion is counterbalanced by the fifth sephirah of Strength, 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 opened to me for creating artworks that reveal interplay between inner consciousness and outer face.  As an MIT artist with access to electronic technologies, my mind gravitated to creating digital self-generated portraits in which internal mind/body processes and one’s facial countenance engage in vital dialogue.  As I felt satisfaction with my choice, I departed from the sephirah of Strength to the next stage, the sixth sephirah, Beauty.  This sephirah represents a beautiful balance between the counter forces of largess and restraint.  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.

The seventh sephirah, Success, 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.  The Hebrew word for this sephirah, 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. The eighth sephirah, Gracefulness, 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, a passive confidence that all is going as it should.

The ninth sephirah, Foundation, 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, into the tenth sephirah of Kingdom, the noble realization of my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space.  It is my making the artwork. I constructed a console in which a participant seated in front of a monitor places her finger in a plethysmograph, which measures internal body states by monitoring blood flow, while under the gaze of a video camera.   Digitized information about her internal mind/body processes triggers changes in the image of herself that she sees on the monitor.  She sees her face changing color, stretching, elongating, extending, rotating, or replicating in response to her feelings about seeing herself changing.  My artwork, Inside/Outside:P’nim/Panim, created a flowing digital feedback loop in which p’nim effects changes in panim and panim, in turn, effects changes in p’nim.