Agriculture as an Emergent System.

With a flower dipped in scented water, sprinkles of water, were tossed onto me. Then, as the priest incanted prayers in Kawi, the liturgical language of Bali. (like Latin to the Catholics.) he poured gushes of water over me from a silver ewer. I’m lying naked on a bench, the priest, his head wrapped in silver lamé, goes on and on, and on. I’m feeling a bit embarrassed, lying there while the bustle of the priest’s manufactory of holy goods goes on all around me. In one corner a group of women are plaiting palm frond baskets made for offerings you see at every entrance to everything. You’ll find one outside your hotel room every morning; a little rice, a stick of incense, a flower. These 4″ baskets are everywhere. The spirits must be propitiated. In another corner women are making colorful rice-paste florets to go on the great piles of fruit offered at every ceremony, and the ceremony is endless in this land of paying attention. The priest has a business going on with his holy goods. Tom brought me here to cleanse me for my return flight home the next day. “It is a very good idea to be spiritually clean before putting yourself at the mercy of a jetliner,” Tom told me. “You’ve been here almost a month and the Butakalas have surely attached themselves to you, they are very sticky creatures.” The butakalas are demon-like, not evil per se, but I was told only require a tiny bit of attention to “stay put, where they belong.” Ignore them—trouble, you’ll trip going up the stairs, get indigestion, or have a problem with immigration officials. They are the living spirits of Bali. You see statues of them everywhere, dressed up and honored, always with a stick of incense close by.

Bali is a great place to talk about the rise of complexity. Complexity arises out of emergent systems, and we’ll be talking about this complexity through the agricultural systems of Bali, Indonesia. A symphony orchestra is an emergent system; many parts working toward a whole. This Internet for pity’s sake! I traveled to Bali twice as an Art instructor, hired on to focus groups into some coherence of pleasure, as travel can be discombobulating, overwhelming, especially in a place like Bali, where it seems like everything is happening at once, with the Art, the Music, the Drama all in a paradisal landscape that…”Oh, man! If this ain’t paradise, this’ll do ’til paradise shows up!” I made trips in ’91 and ’95. On my ’95 trip sponsored by SFMOMA, our group was accompanied by Tom and Aryati Hunter who brought us into the studios of many artists—extraordinary pleasure. Tom was an American, a translator, teaching linguistics at the University in Denpasar and Aryati native-born in Bali. What a pair of dedicated people! I’m eternally grateful to have known them. I made the painting below just after my return in ’95, a watercolor that seemed to flow out of the end of the brush, spigot-like—Bali is a water-world and I believe I caught something of value when Tom took me to that priest before I left, to lie naked and receive the “water-blessing” to ensure safe travels, from the priest pouring scented holy-water over me incanting prayer after prayer. All-in-all and finally, it’s just about paying attention.

Bali Masks watercolor 22″ x 30″ 1995.

In contrast to emergent systems, we have to return to the backbone of Science; reductionism. This explains the world in ever-finer detail looking for a Unified Field Theory of the physical world. Einstein’s dream. Wholly rational and experimentally verifiable. It has been of great interest to watch the process of “the standard model” of the sub-atomic world uncovered in this reductionist mode with ever-more energetic contraptions to smash the particles of the world from atoms to protons to quarks to most recently, the discoveries of the Large Hadron Collider and the unveiling of the Higgs-Boson particle, just a few years back in 2012. Cool! And now, with the James Webb Telescope we’ve gone the other direction to the cosmic beginnings of time itself. Even cooler! “Good afternoon, you’ve reached the Time & Materials Construction Company, constructing a universe for 13.7 Billion years.” I mean the equivalence of matter and time: E=mc2. Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future…says TS Eliot in The Four Quartets. Humans are OK when we get out of the way of trying for political certainty and allow emergence. Here’s the link for the Standard Model.


>>>The theories and discoveries of thousands of physicists since the 1930s have resulted in a remarkable insight into the fundamental structure of matter: everything in the universe is found to be made from a few basic building blocks called fundamental particles, governed by four fundamental forces. Our best understanding of how these particles and three of the forces are related to each other is encapsulated in the Standard Model of particle physics. Developed in the early 1970s, it has successfully explained almost all experimental results and precisely predicted a wide variety of phenomena. Over time and through many experiments, the Standard Model has become established as a well-tested physics theory.<<< This from the folks at CERN home of the LHC.


This is the essence of reductionist thinking. We like it. But our focus in this essay will be to discuss emergence in general, not exactly the opposite of reductionist thinking, and…but, specifically, we’ll take a spy-glass view of the emergence of agriculture, specifically agriculture as practiced on the tiny island of Bali. You can think of emergence in the way many people talk about it—think of a flock of birds moving in a synchrony. Each individual bird, a free flyer, but all moving in a pattern creating a flock, like this murmuration our family witnessed New Year’s Eve 2020. This murmuration is a perfect example of an emergence.

Yep, It ain’t smoke, them are all Starlings!

Emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own, properties or behaviors which emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.”(Wiki) Agriculture is an emergent property of human history. All the many pieces of that unity-of-purpose, agriculture, came together for me, seeing the rice farming of Bali, Indonesia. Judith and I both saw this on our separate trips before our marriage. I made two trips there in 1991 (sponsored by UCSC) and 1995, both, as an art instructor, hired to focus a contingent of Americans by making Art as we travelled. These were Art-centric trips where we were granted access to the studios of painters and carvers, practice sessions with dancers and musicians, talked with the great shadow puppet masters of that complex theatre. Sitting, drawing, and painting slows the pace of “site-seeing” to allow the depth of a place to enter the conscious mind. It’s the only way to travel. In addition, on my ’95 trip, a trip sponsored by the SFMOMA, after the group went home, I stayed on for 10 days, and traveled on my own and joined up with Tom and Aryati. Traveling with them after our group left, brought us to her village where I saw first-hand the techniques of Balinese land practices. Nothin’ like getting your feet mud-caked standing in a paddie, washing for dinner in the river. I don’t claim any special expertise in Anthropology, or Agronomy, or Philosophy, but on my return from Bali, I started an Art-making business based on the emergent principals I saw in Bali. I do claim some expertise in this field—50 years as a practitioner, Art impresario, and teacher. I hadn’t yet read Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who’s thinking about Eco-Phenomonology would provide a retrospective outline, but we established our business with the motto The Land of Yes. Yes, was definitely an emergent thought in those days (1996) when the Art-world was saying NO to the digital printing we’d adopted, and NO was the gatekeeper of the market-driven Art world we found ourselves in. “A Digital print will enter the Achenbach over my dead body,” said the curator of prints at the Fine Arts Museum in SF. He is still alive and they do collect our prints. My partner in this venture, an old-school printer of hand lithography, David Salgado (1948-2020) along with my son Noah would say, “We need to bring this new baby into the world, or it will be raised by wolves.” Our venture did raise up digital printing to stand as an equal. We had something to do with setting a standard, in that emergent world of digital technology.

Saying YES in a no world since 1979. Emergent? YES!

I had read Gregory Bateson’s Steps toward an Ecology of Mind, and Jack Burnham’s The Structure of Art (1970) which gave me an ample foundation for thinking in an emergent fashion. Just the title of Bateson’s Steps toward an Ecology of Mind points right away to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the embodied consciousness of his Eco-phenomenology. And, if you ever found yourself in an Anthro. 101 class in those ’60’s days you would have surely been shown Bateson and his wife Margaret Mead’s classic film, Trance and Dance in Bali https://youtu.be/Z8YC0dnj4Jw. We saw this very same dance live. Trance is a part of being on Bali, the bands holding the psyche together are super flexible there. The Structure of Art opened my eyes to Philosophy as a pathway for thinking about Art in the broadest sense. Burnham ends his book after laying out a complete Structuralist formulation of…first there was this…then there was this…leading to what he called “Art Degree Zero,” when art would return to what Suzi Gablik, eventually (1984), would call for, in her The Re-enchantment of Art. Art connected to the embodied spirit in works that leaned toward healing the rifts we feel as Post-modernism flushes out meaning. As meaning became just another DaDa joke. The Land of Yes proved to be a successful emergent concept counter to this.

Rice fields in Tabanan, West Bali where I stayed.

The rice terraces are so photogenic they show up in any travelogue of Bali. Beautiful and bountiful, the whole island seems gardened, not farmed. But, it is the political structure that was revealed to me, wholly different from the etched-in-stone model we westerners were taught: First hunter-gathering, then wheat farming, then surpluses leading to armies to protect the crops, then a priesthood to govern the armies and to calculate planting times, and finally Kings and Queens with dynastic succession of rulers—this is the stone-etched model with the farmers at the bottom of the pyramid. Agriculture in Bali is eminent in it’s very own way and by all evidence, steeped not in top-down governance, but truly democratically organized. You can think of the ubiquitous Gamelan music as a focusing activity, as an emergent music. Think of that flock of starlings in murmuration. They don’t miss a note, do they? Nor do the gamelan players.

The sound of Bali, embodied music.

Bali is exotic in many ways, first of all, being a Hindu enclave in a Moslem nation, it stands apart culturally, as a 70 x 90 mile island in a 5000 mile long archipelago of 10,000 islands. Bali stands out also as it is governed socially in a complex matrix of languages based on the caste system. If you wish to speak even in a rudimentary way while traveling there, you will learn Bahasa Indonesia, the unifying, semi-invented (lately with its own literature) language born to unify a nation of 1000’s of languages and dialects; it’s the language school kids learn. But if you are native-born in Bali you learn three distinct languages, not Indonesian, to be able to speak up and down the caste system. One language for people above you, one for your peers and one for people below you, or wherever you stand in relation to others. Also, your very name gives away your caste standing. Syntax and grammar rule the conversations on the island, with a priesthood in place only to officiate passages of life, not authoritative, but essential in organizing water delivery rituals. The subak water delivery system to the farms is a ritualized form of governance, democratic to the root and tied to the Art. You can’t release the water without putting on a play to honor the gods. It’s just not done. All of this art and performance makes Bali a unique tourist destination and has added greatly to the economy in a very emergent way. It is a living museum with rice cultivation as the curator, water flow the endowment.

In the post-modern world where meaning is arbitrary, we can learn a lot from the Balinese who live their lives through Art. It is Art that unifies purpose toward the ultimate purpose of being an embodied soul in this world, toward that ultimate purpose of that body—to eat and metabolize, to live. We have been reading Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought (Lakoff, et al 1999). I can’t think of a more embodied sense of being as there exists on Bali. We have to acknowledge Maurice Merleau-Ponty as the main the progenitor of this embodied philosophy with his Eco-phenonomonology. Your mind is your body and how that body moves through the world. That the rational basis for Balinese culture comes through as a culture of the body, becomes obvious being there for just a few days. Even though so many daily practices seem like hocus-pocus; the girl placing a 4″ basket of flowers, rice and incense at the door to your room, saying a prayer, and splashing it with holy water, tossed with a dipped blossom has the rational effect of focusing your attention out of your own mind, even for just a second, and placing you where you are. The tooth-filing ceremony of dulling the incisors a bit, is a kind of bar-mitzvah to insure the darker, animal qualities of the psyche are held at bay. Are you reminded? Every day when you brush your teeth. Babies are not allowed to touch the ground until six months old, when their feet are put to the earth in a ceremony of arrival, then they are carried in a sling for another six months. Their babies seem exceedingly pleasant humans, as did all of the adults we met. That baby-carrying cloth figures in the theatre production of the Witch vs. The Dragon, as the Witch waves the empty cloth mocking bereaved mothers. When the Balinese eat together they go off in separate corners believing the Butakalas from another person can enter the opened mouth. I took Tom and Aryati out for a celebratory restaurant meal at the end of our time together. “What is your favorite restaurant?” Soto Ayam Bali (Chicken Soup Bali) an authentic joint favored by locals. The seating is stadium style on benches with narrow tables so no one sees an opened mouth. Get it? When the first high-rise hotel went up the locals were shocked into mandating that the tallest hotel could be no taller than the tallest palm. A very body-conscious move.

Fashioning offerings.

It all seems so rational, even though the Balinese are famously superstitious, making offerings each day, to keep the dark forces at bay, but what is really going on is not irrational. Think of it as supra-rational, in service to the life force. This is best exemplified in the ubiquitous poleng cloth, where there is an alternating and always equal number of black and white squares. Together, those squares signify the coexistence of opposites and the ultimate achievement of equilibrium.

Poleng cloth is, worn by people, statues and trees.

There is the living world of trance, where visits to the hidden world are so matter of fact it is accepted as a part of daily life. We had a states-side visit from our Balinese friend Aryati, so we took her on an excursion to San Francisco. Coming home she expressed severe anxiety, “You people have no idea how many demons are running around loose on the streets, un-cared for and no offerings are being made for them, this is a scary place.” Amen. Aryati brought to life the Bateson/Mead film.

The ubiquitous offerings you see at any celebration.
Close up picture of some typical Balinese offerings.

Making offerings is a way of life, daily, even hourly; our recent trend in “Mindfulness” has been going on in Bali for a millennium, at least. Lets get busy people! We see the effects of the unpropitiated in our politics as we are driven down further and further into brick silos by our very clicks and swipes, as our robot masters offer to us more and ever more of any skew we happen on. The robots of the web, ever more in charge. Butakalas! Demons!

There is really no word for art in Balinese, it’s just what people do. There are some identified Artists, mostly plying the tourist trade, having risen to attention by Dutch artists in the colonial period. Everyone is a painter, a dancer, a musician. It’s estimated the Balinese spend 30% of their waking activity, their human capital, on the production of what we’d consider Art and offerings. Consider this: Each village has three temples as devotional centers dedicated to Bramah, Vishnu or Shiva. These temples require refreshment once a year and since the Balinese calendrical system is based on a 210 day “year”, (being on the equator, a year isn’t linked to a solar cycle) each temple is “refreshed” with a devotional ceremony yearly, so every 70 days some celebration is happening, even in the smallest enclaves. These devotional ceremonies must include offerings of colorfully arranged fruits, sculptures made of dyed flour paste, and most importantly, some kind of performance; a masked dance from the Ramayana or the Mahabarata, a reenactment of the defeat of Rangda the Witch who kills babies (the play mentioned in the Bateson/Mead film), or a shadow-puppet performance. All performers are well-practiced, coming directly from their villages. The exceptions are the Shadow Puppet masters who are highly specialized artists, almost a priesthood, manipulating their puppets through well-known dramas from the Hindu world of oft-repeated tales of Heros and the defeat of evil. This gets us back to the sea of language you find yourself in. These Wayangs, as they are called, must be able to voice their puppets through the three levels of the Balinese language as well as a liturgical language, Kawi, not in common usage. (Think of Latin in the Catholic tradition, again). It is dazzling to the mind to watch these masters perform while you sit on the dirt of the village square, lit only by kerosene lamp. In these puppet plays there is always a comic fool who speaks the common Indonesian, cracking jokes of real political bite, sometimes a little English comes through. Everyone gets the jokes. Fun stuff, but how does all this relate back to my brief of agriculture as an emergent system?

Backstage view of a Wayang Kulit.
Audience view, but you are free to roam around to see it all.

My first evening in Bali, in ’91, bleary from the 30-hour plane ride, and downright dizzy & nodding from jet-lag, the hoteliers knowing we were on an “Art Adventure” gathered our group, excitedly telling us a Wayang was soon to begin in the next village, it was just a mile walk if we took a shortcut across the paddies. Most opted out, but a small gaggle of us would make our way balancing on the berms of the paddie fields. First, we would have to dress up for the occasion—sarong and waist-belt are required to enter the temple grounds. We got fixed up into Temple Wear and started out into the night, led by our guide with a kerosene lantern; with a lot of fiddling with my get-up as we made our way. The sound! Four discernible frog croakings, chirpings with a chorus of crickets, walking a little stumble-bum because of the unfamiliar outfit, but the night was at once gigantic and small, huge but pressed in with the softest perfumed air, the small circle of light from the lantern guiding us. The berm of the paddie vibrated with our steps as we crossed this mud-world in pitch dark. We passed through the temple gates, a feature everywhere in Bali, the split mountain motif letting you know you were entering a sanctified ground. Stepping through we were hardly on some imagined holy-ground—it was a chaos of cock-fights in action, all-or-nothing card games, women with a convenience store of goods laid out on blankets—cigarettes, chips and Cokes in a bottle. Holy ground? The Balinese are gamblers. Ferocious at it. Whole families are brought to ruin or exultation by gambling. A prize-winner rooster can earn you millions. Kids are running around in super-hero outfits, capes flowing…then the gamelan strikes up and the serious business of the evening unfolds slow as a sunset. I was transported back to Anthro. 301, an advanced course taught by a woman who’d done her dissertation on the shadow play. In the class it was a curiosity shown to prove some Anthropological point. But this was real Art in service to the collective action of rice farming. The shadows danced and joked, the drama of good versus evil unfolded and I thought at that moment I could die happy having seen this in its pure authenticity. And…on my first night on the island! Every Balinese carries a lexicon inside their heads, on their tongues. This sea of language also carries an emergent sense of the world as a complex woven fabric. The languages are not just nuances of the main tongue, but markedly different from each other. This is what spilled out of the puppet master manipulating 4, 5, 6 puppets at once each in a different language, different voice.

A simple temple gate, typical everywhere on Bali. On the ride from the airport to our loging we saw hundreds of these gates.

First let’s talk about the embodied imagination as it relates to the structure of Balinese agriculture. Born into this culture you would have a sense that the daily practice of toiling in the fields is linked to the rituals in the temples, the dramas balancing the told stories of right behavior. This toil is your duty, there are no non-performers, whether you work the fields or carve masks, your activity means something. Alienation is not a term applicable. Staying in the village we saw people washing up after work in the paddies, readying for a performance in say, a masked dance called the Toepang. When the mask goes on, the body acts fully in accord with the drama. The political structure that results from this is democratic; the ritual performance acts to bring the world to one level. Once on stage there is no hierarchy, even in the light of the caste system, and this goes toward decision making of a political nature. You are left with the feeling there is no king or queen required; it all unfolds in an emergent pattern. Even the structure of the counties of Bali, are an eminent structure which run as thin watersheds, pie-shaped down the mountain, they have the head-man always from a village at the bottom of the mountain. Since wetland rice-farming depends on water flow, the guy at the bottom will always get water if he’s in charge, and so all up and down the pie-wedge of land, demarcating a “Banjar” a political territory, everyone gets water. Think of the great mountains of Bali as divided in wheel-like spokes into political entities. This stands as an emergent marker buoy, signaling you are in the embodied mind, and it works, and has worked for 1000’s of years.

In a hubristic move, the folks who brought about “the green revolution” sought to implement this new style of farming to Bali with high yielding strains of rice mandated by the central government. Heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides—all the markers for industrialized agriculture. It worked for a season with measurable positive results and then catastrophe. The rice farms collapsed. For 2000 years the Balinese had been managing their lands in a harmonious relationship with the natural and spiritual world, through an intricate series of rituals, offerings and artistic performances. A series of water temples are at the heart where the ritualistic performances are a deep part of the “water release,” Subak ceremonies. Everyone gets fed this way.

I made the lede-in watercolor soon after my return from my ’95 trip. I don’t know if it was the watery subak system of water control in Bali, or the purification water ceremony I received at Tom’s behest, but this watercolor seemed to just gush out of the end of the brush. Something was released in me, and very glad of it. I had those masks lined up on a table getting ready to distribute to family & friends and the glancing, morning light gave me the oomph to get this down.

These trips to Bali gave me great hope for the arts in coordination with the very practical day-to-day of making a living as we all move toward an emergence way of life. “Bali is an exceptional testimony to the subak system, a democratic and egalitarian system focused on water temples and the control of irrigation that has shaped the landscape over the past thousand years. Since the 11th century the water temple networks have managed the ecology of rice terraces at the scale of whole watersheds. They provide a unique response to the challenge of supporting a dense population on a rugged volcanic island that is only extant in Bali.” From UNESCO. The Art of Bali does not in general have the markings of modernism, meaning challenging given styles in a Hegelian spiral of “improvement” and change. Mostly the Artists of Bali keep to the normative arrived at over the centuries. A friend who was selling batik cloth and carvings to the tourists showed me the depth of curatorial criteria in Bali. I wanted to buy a Bhoma carving, a protective being for our home. He pulled one out gave me a price, then pulled out another of finer quality, and finally the one I bought, a very superior item. All three were the same image but the color, the fineness of carving on the third said, “buy me.” I did, and it hangs in our home today. It showed me the levels of Art not achieved through innovation but careful adherence to the given form. Parsing Art and its twin, Artistry. QED.

Bhoma Guardian Figure Purchased 1995, I wish I had bought all three.

Some years after the ’95 trip I was established in my printing business, which I felt was an emergent system itself, using established traditional printmaking techniques (hand lithography, silkscreen) with the recently brought-forward digital technology, in collaborative ventures with artists, funders, technicians, collectors. The inspiration for the business, in great part, came from that trip: seeing how Art and daily activity, and economics with a level of the guidance eminent in the very act of the creative process, gave me the oomph. We looked at the artists themselves who came to have prints and projects made of their work, as the “art supplies”, as the “pallet and fiddle bow” (Yeats) for making works of art. We got a call at our studio—”Would you be willing to take a look at the work of a Balinese painter?” Sure. Our logo was printed with the slogan, “The Land of Yes”. We pretty much meant it. The young man came in and brought out paintings, typical of a Balinese genre—crowds of active people focused on some ritual. I had seen hundreds of these, painted in the traditional style. These were different in that some people in the crowd were wearing surfing shorts, some with logo Tee-shirts. Very two-worlds-at-once. I said, “These remind me of the work of a painter whose studio we visited on my last trip, a guy who used similar contemporary themes, I Made Buti.” “I Made Buti, is my father”, he said.

I would be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to the “other” side of Bali. A darker side, with the gambling ruinous to many lives. This is a little poleng cloth in this essay to even things out; the black, the white. As well, Indonesia is rife with corruption bred-in-the-bone of national politics and that can filter down to petty officialdom. I was at the airport, very ready to return to the states, I didn’t think I could eat another bite of all the richness I’d been fed. Arriving at the airport I was frazzled and more than a little “out of it”, exploding with excitement and exhausted at once. At the embarkation gate I couldn’t seem to find my exit visa that been stapled to my passport, essential to boarding my flight. Emptying everything…nothing. I was brought out of line to sit in an office with a belly-bulging-over-his-belt guy with a uniform and a badge. He was the first fat person I’d seen in weeks. “Sorry, you may not board that plane—I know it’s leaving in 1/2 hour but those are the rules.”. “I have nowhere to stay!!” “Sorry, he says…”have you had a good time in Bali? It looks like you will be staying with us longer, we will be happy to put you up in our nice jail.” Swirls of panic. Jail!!!?? I tried to calm myself thinking of the lovely water blessing I’d received from Tom’s Priest. Deep breath. Deep breath. I rummaged in my bag once more. A 10,000 Rupiah ($20 USD) note found its way into my passport and I handed it back, “Check my passport again, Trima Kasi!”(please in Indonesian). He looked, smiled and brought me out of the hell-hole office and into the embarkation line waving all away, bringing me to the front of the line. This Butakala had been propitiated. “Bali is a great place to visit, Yes?…Once you know your way around.”

Just remember, these demon gods are everywhere, even at embarkation. They don’t ask for much, but they do want a little sum-‘tin.

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