Noah Kenneally's Science of Cartooning in Sociology

I met Noah Kenneally sometime around 2001, when my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I ran a performance series out of a warehouse space in the west end of Toronto. Noah was introduced to me by a frequent performer in our space: Lisa Pijuan-Nomura. (I don't think anyone Lisa has ever introduced me to has ever been a jerk, she naturally attracts the most lovely people.) At the time Noah was a theatre performer and maker, a puppeteer with a fiercely smart and political mind.

Noah and I went on to share the stage three times. The first in Lisa Pijuan-Nomura and Erin Shields' joint experiment "The Paradise Project" -- an exploration of Paradise Lost that happened at Lula Lounge. The second time, Noah and I played villain lovers in Theatre Rusticle's "WISH", an adaptation of Congreve's "The Way of the World". The final time was in a Blue Ceiling dance project that was part of Harbourfront's HATCH program in 2005. "Days of Mad Rabbits" was, as were the other two projects we shared, wild, multidisciplinary, fantastical dreamscapes.  And I was amazed and inspired at the way Noah could throw himself into the unknown, outside his comfort zone with beautiful abandon. 

But what follows is not about Noah as an artist, not exactly anyway (you'll see his cartooning all the way through). Shortly after Days of Mad Rabbits, Noah took on a new career path. 

I had to edit out our tirade about lack of affordable childcare, and a debate about whether or not it is good luck to get pooped on  by a bird (I was the lucky recipient of the poop as our interview wrapped up in Christie Pits Park)  but read on to hear about the more important stuff: Noah's work using art as a scientific research tool, and about building a more compassionate, open-minded society.

Noah Kenneally in Blue Ceiling dance's "Days of Mad Rabbits" 2005
photo by Melanie Gordon

Lucy: Culturally we have a really particular idea of what a scientist is. When I posted a call for scientists to interview, you, as a social scientist, responded first! You challenged my thinking, which I had thought was very open. However there was a default setting in my brain about "scientists". But of course science is the study of how the world works and that is what you do. 

So, my first question is perhaps to address this unconscious bias of what scientists are: how do you see yourself as a scientist within the field of social science?

Noah: You’re not alone in that idea that science means hard science: biology, chemistry physics etc. And I agree with your definition of science being how to figure out how things work in the world. 

I’m a social scientist, a sociologist because I look at how people work together to get along, the negotiations. In my discipline of sociology there are two streams. One is statistical and big patterns of movement in society, large populations, the mathematical side of things. My side of sociology is more qualitative looking at the negotiations on a day-to-day level and how that creates society. The science aspect is the approach. Science is a framework and a headspace and an attitude towards things rather than a set of rules or laws.

And people may disagree. 100% sure there are people who disagree.

Lucy: The experimental astrophysicists, theoretical physicists – they’re pretty out there, but also some of the smartest people on the planet -- they would probably agree with you.

Noah: They would. It’s the folks who subscribe to the popular idea of what science and then there’s the actual science which is asking questions and if you’re asking questions then you are doing science. All scientists have different and sometimes very formalized approaches to asking the questions. But all of us are engaged in inquiry and trying to figure stuff out. 

Lucy: The messy parts.

Noah: Science is not dogma. It is actually anti-dogmatic. It’s collaborative and about not being afraid to be wrong. Seeking the ways to be wrong so you can get to a better place.

Lucy: The more popular understanding of science may be based on academia – the publish-or-perish perspective. You have to be right and if there’s a hole in your theory or proposal someone else could swoop in and steal or disprove your idea. 

I suppose the government has a lot to do with it – the process of applying for grants and fellowships and peer assessment, much like artists – who’s at the top of the government impacts what is being funded and thus researched.

Noah: Politics and capitalism and science are not happy bedfellows. The capitalist model that we have absorbed and science don’t go together. We are always looking for the product or the answer. Science is about the process and the questions.

Lucy: It is interesting to me that you’ve had a life as a performer. I am so happy to say I’ve shared a stage with you in three different shows. Is there a path that took you from your artistic life – not that your artistic life is over-- 

Noah: Kind of.

Lucy: Is there a path or a trajectory that took you from performing to what you do now?

Bee Pallomina and Noah Kenneally in "Days of Mad Rabbits" 2005
photo by Melanie Gordon

Noah: The transfers are between teaching and performing, collaborating and performing. All the community art work that I did alongside the performance I did – I did because of my politics. Those politics about collaboration and social justice are the main thread from the performance work I did to the science work I do now.

Lucy: When you refer to the community and politics-influenced art you did, are you talking about Clay and Paper Theatre?

Noah: Yes. Working with Clay and Paper and Shadowland and Jumblies Theatre. I also had my own company I did stuff with and freelanced. The community art I did was often with kids. My decision to go back to school partly came from doing more and more administration and less and less making of art. It became less fulfilling. And between my then-partner and I, one of us needed some kind of pension and I had not been producing my own work for years, and people had been telling me to be a teacher.

I went to school to become a kindergarten teacher originally but after two years I realized I didn’t want to tell kids what to do, I wanted to ask them what they think about the world. I moved away from school and pension to a certain extent. I needed to learn to become a researcher, to learn how to ask people questions.

Lucy: That’s something a lot of people don’t actually consider is how to ask questions. I’m horrible at it.

Noah: You’re doing great. 

Lucy: Well, I’m curious which helps, but I’m not particularly thoughtful about how the questions come out. That’s a really valuable skill.

Noah: That’s the basis of research. How do you ask questions? It falls along disciplinary lines, chemistry, psychology and nuclear physics might all be similar, but their questions will be different. Between the hard sciences and the social sciences there are similarities, but the questions will be different.

Lucy: There’s something in the framework of it that has to be similar in order to be honest and truthful.

Noah: That’s an interesting word truthful. Different approaches to science approach what the idea of truth is differently.

Lucy: I guess in a way that’s sort of their point. Like art. Because scientists and artists-- what we’re all doing is really trying to explain the world somehow and we have this road that we’re going to go on to explain it and all the roads are going to crisscross and probably end up in the same place if we follow for long enough. But the point is it’s THIS road and not THAT road we’re taking and in order to be truthful on that road it requires slightly different words, images and processes.

Noah: The tricky thing is when people place value hierarchy on that. This road is the right road or the only road that has the truth

Lucy: That’s often how religion functions. This is the only road and the rest of you are heretics.

Noah: The media’s and the common-sense approach of science boils an idea down, so we can understand it. But science can’t really be boiled down. It’s complicated and complex.

Lucy:  And constantly changing.

Noah: Yes. So, it’s hard to simplify stuff. Simplifying things leads invariably to reductionism. Which leaves out all sorts of important ideas.

Lucy: There are those magic people who can do it, put the complex idea out there for the general public and leave people feeling they really grasp the fullness. Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes you feel you are part of the process as well as the history, and by being involved in the history of it you feel you are part of the now.

Noah: Science needs to be inclusive instead of exclusive. Science says I am pursuing a way of describing and explaining the world in this particular path and you are doing it over there in your way and that’s great too.  

We have the Enlightenment to blame for this division between art and science. We made this split and the liberal philosophy at the heart of the Enlightenment was that people are individuals and responsible for themselves. Science is incredibly political, on a large scale.

The power structures of research evolved [from the Enlightenment] as ivory towers, the approach of “leave me alone and let me pursue my truth”, These have reinforced this division. The idea that science is over there, not here with me.

Lucy: There’s the ivory tower in art too. But it’s shifting. I used to hear artists speak as though they were separate from society somehow, but I do believe the current atmosphere, in North America, anyway, is galvanizing more and more artists to immerse in, reflect upon and speak to broader political and environmental conditions without losing depth of artistry.

On to another line of thought…. Let me ask you about your work more specifically. You are doing social science through cartooning?

Noah: Yes. It seems like you can’t get away from art once you stop being an artist. It doesn’t let you go. I set my art aside and I wanted to make meaning in a new way, through the dominant ways of text and writing in academia.  

I have always been a drawer, and working with young kids, which is where I’ve ended up, we can’t always rely on text and particular forms of literacy. Asking kids questions about their live, their experiences and how they feel they fit into the world: those are complicated and sophisticated ideas that kids are completely capable of grasping and working with. Even if they can’t write yet, they can deal with those questions. For a long time, social scientists who work with kids have been asking: How do get children to explore these ideas and create some kind of document that will contain their responses?

My brand of sociology is pretty collaborative. The way I understand society is that we are all involved in it, in large ways and in individual ways. So just asking kids questions and recording what they say isn’t enough for me. I want to invite kids into the process. It’s a way of expressing something without relying on written text. And so I have been experimenting with this.

I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of people. I’ve been working with Lynda Barry, who is a cartoonist -- she had a syndicated cartoon for over 30 years and has published books and plays. Most recently she has been working as an interdisciplinary fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

She’s doing really interesting work about how writing and drawing activities can be used in research. She uses the language of cartooning as a framework. It’s particularly useful with kids. I say to a child, “what is a story that you can tell me about what being a kid is like for you?” I approach things as stories because that’s something I’m comfortable with, but a story is just another way of explaining the world. Story is another word we can use for theory.

My background in childhood development comes from a particular view of children having rights and of being capable, sophisticated thinkers. Kids are theory builders – it’s the way they learn. It makes a lot of sense if we are thinking of a collaborative way of building society together.

I get kids to make drawings to communicate their theories about what it means to be a kid. I can use the document with them to see if other kids are building the same theories. How do they relate to the theories that adults are making about the experience of childhood?

Lucy: Fascinating. It’s so clear how it falls in line with the quintessential scientific process. I’ve brought this up with the other scientists I’ve interviewed: I read one physicist’s explanation of scientific process as Saturate, Incubate, Illuminate, Verify. He said it was the same as artistic process, except art doesn’t have the Verify stage.

Noah: That’s bullshit!

Lucy: Of course! That’s putting your work out into the world.

Noah: That’s the performative process! I understand the science perspective of artists not getting feedback.

Lucy:  But as a performer you’re getting it live and constantly.

Noah: Exactly.

Lucy: And you’re adjusting your theory, your experiment as you do it! Even unconsciously.

But I love that description. I use it now in my choreographic process. I find the phase of incubation particularly valuable.

Noah:  It’s the stage that’s so railroaded. The commercial/commodity pressure of science is to push it out. Time is crucial to art and science to get good answers.

Lucy:  Some people do push through quickly and successfully, if done in the spirit of openness and standing on the shoulders of those before them – I’ve heard that metaphor used in so many of the books on science I’ve read –  Einstein said it about Newton and that he expected others to stand on his.

Noah:  Einstein has given artists so many insights as well. It’s amazing to think about this generosity that is at the heart of science also. The way we move through time and space, in geography with information technology…people can take it and elaborate, extend in a totally different way that is open-hearted. Science as inclusive is key to that idea.

Lucy:  I’m feeling optimistic about technology because of its inclusivity possibilities. The way open source sharing is happening in medical research and other fields. The arts, dance is actually one of the first places to grab hold of it because of the visual aspect. I can go on YouTube, I can be inspired by things happening across the world. It requires that all parties act in generosity.

Noah: And with transparency too. “We got this idea from these people and we’re going to elaborate on it, or go in this direction.” Science is good at this, though people do still steal…..

Lucy: There’s a practice of citing your scientific sources and roots that’s accepted and expected.

Noah: Exactly. The job of the student is to engage with the questions and create a roadmap of where those ideas came from. Maybe taking two ideas that haven’t been in conversation with each other before to see what might come of it. Art does this too.

Caroline Niklas-Gordon, Noah Kenneally and Bee Pallomina in "Days of Mad Rabbits" 2005
photo by Melanie Gordon

Lucy: You’ve already touched on this but what are the biggest questions for you in your work?

Noah: That’s a great question.  What are some of the ways that kids create meaning about their experiences? How do those practices that kids do hook up and inform the large societal or social practices that keep us moving in particular ways?

I am also interested in Lynda Barry’s question: what is an image?

Lucy: Is that from the perspective of what constitutes an image? Or by what it’s influence on us is?

Noah: What components make an image, AND what are images for. It’s both. Lynda says anything we call the arts is a vehicle for an image. We are so visually oriented, but it doesn’t have to be visual. For people who are visually impaired, what are the images in their imaginations? How would you research that, given the limitations of language?

What is an image? Dance contains it, text contains it. An image does not contain a specific meaning. We are familiar with this in art, but in science subjectivity is just now coming into consideration.

Lucy Rupert, puppet (who surely had a name, but unfortunately I've forgotten) and Noah Kenneally in "Days of Mad Rabbits" 2005
photo by Melanie Gordon

Lucy: Thank goodness for those quantum physics guys. They shook things up in this department. The idea that something can be two things at once. The Heisenberg principle: that we can know where something is and how it’s moving but not both things at once. I feel like it’s starting to sink into our broader thinking. It impacts how we can engage in critical discourse – two views on something can simultaneously accepted, even if they are mutually exclusive. You can’t know position and momentum at the same time.

Noah: Uncertainty makes matter.

Lucy: In terms of physical matter, but also matter as in meaning. 

When we were working on that crazy Paradise Project with Lisa Pijuan-Nomura, you told me to read His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. And I did, and I thought “This guy has got it figured out.” I kind of think Pullman has the best explanation of energy, matter, death and the universe. The translation of physical matter into disembodied and embodied meaning. 

Noah: It comes back to are you asking questions or are you trying to prove answers. Proving an answer can lead to wars. 

Lucy: Yes, because if someone else has a different answer it can be really threatening.  I was listening to the podcast On Being recently, an interview with a Franciscan monk and his view was that prayer was leading to not great things, like pray for forgiveness then you’re off the hook. His view was to call the action contemplation and the action is deeper thinking in pursuit of more questions, rather than answers.

Noah: So good. Have you heard of Joanna Macy, an environmental activist and Buddhist philosopher? She does interesting stuff with spirituality, embodied experience. She did her PhD on systems theory and Buddhism in their overlap and also their relevance in environmental activism. She talks about the uncertainty. Not knowing brings us into deeper contact with reality, then we are able to be more present, see more clearly, ask a wider variety of questions.

Lucy:  I responded pretty strongly to Richard Dawkins’ idea that religion in its more formalized state is a stage of evolution that we have outgrown. That makes sense to me. At the same time, Joanna Macy’s approach is probably where we need to go to find meaning and combine that sense of meaning with the knowledge we have to act, to solve major problems on our planet. We will always make a story.

Noah: And we even retell a story with a new interpretation, to connect it to new circumstances.

Lucy: Like our interpretation of patterns in the stars back before telescopes and astronomy. Humans made relationships between different stars depending on their environmental reference points. Australians saw an emu constellation; North Americans saw a bear. Different frames on top of the same big pattern.

Noah: If we said the world is big enough to contain multiple ways of telling stories about the world, if we said our hearts and minds are big enough to contain multiple ways of telling stories about the world we would be much better off. 


You can follow Noah and learn more about his work:

All cartoons courtesy of Noah Kenneally.
All photos courtesy of Blue Ceiling dance.


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