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  • Source: Exhibition Essay
  • Author: Shamim M. Momin
  • Date: January 13, 2013
  • Format: PRINT

…but not simpler

Lines and Cracks and Zebras and Horses

The title of Michael Genovese’s exhibition (Lines and Cracks and Zebras and Horses) draws in part on a colloquial aphorism — “when you hear hooves beat behind you, don’t expect to see a zebra” or “when you hear hooves beat, think horses, not zebras” — which typically is understood to evolve from the principle of Occam’s (or Ockham’s) razor. Attributed to the 14th century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham, the principle states, “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate,” or “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”

Over time, this principle has been largely misunderstood to mean that as a general rule, in both science and philosophy, one should stick with the most “obvious” hypothesis or conclusion, as that is typically the correct one. In fact, what Occam proposed was a guideline to developing a theory, not a conclusion: the idea that when you have competing theories that make the same predictions/conclusion, the simpler is better. Importantly, the notion of simpler is not necessarily what seems most obvious (which usually includes one’s untested biases, preferences and predilections), but rather the one with the most observable elements (empirically testable), the fewest new assumptions. It is a means to keep one’s focus rigorous, to start with the things we can observe, and not yet add to it the seduction of complex settings to achieve the same goal. It is, merely, a way to begin, a rule of thumb—not a scientific axiom as it is often employed. Also critically, while intended to separate two theories that make the same predictions, it in no way precludes that another theory might make a different prediction altogether about the same phenomena. It does not deny the complexity of organisms, it just suggests a complex thing does not obviate the expectation of empirical simplicity. It does not promise that our notion of ‘simple’ (a subjective term if there ever was one) might not be quite different from that of, say, quantum particles, why the sky is blue, the light of stars, or the reason/function of a cat’s purr.

The zebra/horse aphorism is interestingly vague in its setup, particularly in the first phrasing cited above. That is, one might could read it as a metaphorical interpretation of the Occam’s razor, wherein the horse is the more observable, simpler theory and the zebra the more unprovable, speculative, with the hooves beats are the conclusive result (the same in both “theories”) — in which case it’s reasonably true to the original principle.

It could also be understood in as the more common misreading of Occam, suggesting that more often than not, the most common conclusion is going to be correct more times than incorrect. The phenomenon is hooves beat overheard, the conclusion should be horses that cause it — it’s a law of averages idea. However, one should note that assumes the listener lives where horse geographically outnumber zebras, a fact true for a large portion of the world’s population, but not all. While it’s still overall the greatest probability, it is still based on assumptive conditions; there is a simple contextual set where this would not be a good idea (i.e. certain plains and mountains of Africa). In this way, it’s actually used most often in medical disciplines, for diagnosis — and in turn coined the term “zebra,” for those uncommon diagnosis that require exactly the kind of contextual thinking, attention to possible unique, unusual circumstances, that the probability approach smoothes out (fans of the excellent, if hyperbolic, show, House, are familiar with this scenario…). What I like about this misinterpretation is that it embraces the idea of embracing what’s not there, meaning those moments are real, if less familiar, and they do exist, quite often in exactly the spaces where we assume the familiar should be. It says “think horses,” or “don’t expect a zebra,” — not that they don’t exist, that they might not be what you see when you do turn around and look.

I saw this on a sign recently, “science is the poetry of reality,” a thought with which I wholeheartedly agree. Genovese’s exhibition similarly takes this poetry of reality — the quiet, overlooked bits and pieces of things we see and alchemizes them (to silver, in this case, not gold, but the metaphorical notion retains). Drawn from disparate, often familiar or banal moments of lines and cracks, the delicate, quiet sculptural interventions reconsider and combine occurrences as varied as a crack in the artist’s kitchen floor, a damaged mihrab from 12th century Iran, a varicose vein (a sub-epidural “crack,” if you will), a line from a captcha (those computer tests that determine a human is using the site, not a machine), and the seam line of an Ancient Greek horse head sculpture, and the stress fracture from a brick building in Compton.

Cracks are typically perceived as the break between two parts, or rather the imminent breaking into parts of what was once whole. Lines, on the other hand, stand stalwart in better graces, that which connects two points, and is often the shorter way between disparate things. While it’s been knocked about quite a bit philosophically and ideologically, linear thinking is a point of pride for many, in that it implies a clear succession of points of cause and effect culminating in a empirically supported and useful conclusion. “Cracked” as an adjective, however, is a synonym for crazy, or at least not quite right, crooked, off-kilter. Lines, good, cracks, bad.

“Lines and Cracks and Zebras and Horses”: in that grammatical setup, it seems to parallel lines with zebras, cracks with horses. Following the logic above, this would suggest that ‘lines’ are the less empirically likely to be the right theory, while ‘cracks’ the better assumption in similar situations, cracks. This seems a reversible of expectation, combining the common connotations of all these, one would expect to find the zebras in the cracks, and let the horses follow the lines. However, the parallel is not strictly correct; rather than a comma between the couplets, Genovese connects them with the same conjunction, “and,” making them technically a list of equivalent things. Perhaps lines aren’t the best or shortest ways between objects or places, perhaps they separate rather than connect parts. Perhaps cracks show richness formerly hidden, reveal depth where there was only surface, or function as a suture point that holds things together with true delicacy and vulnerability. Perhaps probabilities change, other options are equally likely, or the unlikely just isn’t unlikely that time—it will be easier to see zebras today, or another uncommon ungulate: a camel, a deer, an elk, a donkey, a gazelle. Perhaps, even once, those hoof beats are a unicorn instead.

Shamim M. Momin is an American art director and curator of contemporary art. Momin is head of the Los Angeles Nomadic Division, a non-profit art organization in Los Angeles, California. She is also an Adjunct Curator for the Whitney Museum of American Art where she co-curated the 2008 and 2004 Whitney Biennial exhibitions.