What are the Flow Arts?

Many UK and European spinners seem reluctant to use the term “flow arts” to describe what they do, as poi, staff and other prop manipulators. The question of what is meant by “flow arts” was recently raised in one of Noel Yee and Maiki Nope’s Loft Shows and that has inspired me to write this article.

If you’re not familiar with the Loft show I recommend checking it out. Each week Noel and Maiki, well-known spinners in their own right, invite a guest or two to discuss hot topics in the spinning (or flow) and juggling world. Their Facebook group is here and you can watch past episodes via Noel’s YouTube channel.

Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiAaannyway… The term “flow arts” has its origins in the mental state described in psychology as the “flow state”. This phrase was first coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who now teaches at Claremont Graduate University.

Being in the flow state is pretty much synonymous with terms like “in the zone”, “on fire” or “in the groove”. According to Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi in Flow theory and research the flow state has six factors which must appear together in order to constitute a flow state:

1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2. merging of action and awareness
3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
5. a distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered
6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi et al lay down three more, interrelated conditions of Flow:

1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.
3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.

As you can see, poi, staff and the rest are prime candidates to fulfil these conditions and elicit the six factors above.
However, as the guys from the Flow Show pointed out, along with their guest Richard Hartnell, “Flow Arts” are distinct from the “Flow State” but nevertheless the former is derived from the latter.

What can be classed as a flow art is a topic of some debate: is contact juggling a flow art? What about aerial circus or even juggling? The Loft Show gang mooted the point that accessibility has some role in whether we can class an activity as a flow art. The activity has to be relatively easy to pick up and perform. The basic poi moves, for example, can be learned fairly quickly and you can string a few of these together and “flow” fairly swiftly and in virtually any environment – your bedroom, the park or your back garden. These moves require very little physical training, at least compared to aerial acrobatics which requires long hours or stretching and conditioning.

It’s this accessibility factor that has led some to ask if contact juggling is a flow art. Contact juggling takes a different sort of body conditioning but nevertheless hours of training to perform many moves.

Another factor in the meaning of “flow art” as used to describe this range of activities is that they all involve the use of a prop. Breakdancing, parkour, tricking, martial arts and many other things are all activities that are conducive to flow but are rarely, if at all, ever referred to as flow arts. On the other hand, other activities that do involve props like juggling and diabolo are also rarely included under the umbrella of flow art.

Perhaps this is the reason for the reluctance of people on the European side of the Atlantic to use the term; its use is a bit arbitrary. But then so is the term “object manipulation” to an extent, which is a much more widely used name in the UK and Europe. The Ministry of Manipulation takes a brief look at the definition of object manipulation and has this to say about it:

“Object Manipulation is part of Modern Juggling. If we use a loose definition of Manipulation, then all Juggling is a type of Object Manipulation, Alternatively if we take a loose definition of Juggling, then Manipulation is a type of Juggling.”

Ministry of Manipulation

The definition of object manipulation may be a bit more concrete than flow arts: “Juggling has an emphasis on throwing and catching, objects flying through the air. Manipulation generally has more emphasis on rolling, holding and movement… It is a blend of juggling, dance, mime & illusion.” Even so, and implicit in MoM’s definition, there are large grey areas.

We haven’t even looked at what is meant by the other word in this term, namely “art”. That is a whole other can of worms that we can’t open here but we will touch on again below.

Another reason for the European prejudice against “flow arts” may be the tendency for some people who partake in these activities to get, what many feel, is overly “cosmic” about the whole thing. This shift in attitude towards the flow state and towards things like sacred geometry goes beyond the empirical definition of Csikszentmihalyi and other psychologists. This more “spiritual” way of looking at this subject does have an audience in the UK and Europe but it is less common than across the pond. While not everyone uses the term “flow” in this “cosmic” way, the association may put other people off using the term and has possibly given “flow art” a bad rep.

So where have we got? What the deuce should we call these things we do? Obviously the all have their individual names (and sub-names like contact poi, multiball contact juggling etc. etc.) but these individual things have much in common so what more general name can we apply here?

Ludwig WittgensteinIf you’ll allow, I’m going to get a bit Wittgensteinian on your asses. Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the last century’s greatest philosophers and was fascinated by the philosophy of language, among other topics. In Philosophical Investigations he looked at how we might define a game. What he found was not unlike the issues we’ve been dealing with here; it’s not too hard to come up with some sort of a definition but then someone else comes along and says “Oi! What about this?” and we hit counter examples and grey areas that make it difficult to ever come up with a satisfactory definition.

Wittgenstein’s answer was to say we don’t have a strict definition of “game” and we don’t need one to use the term. We are all socially familiar enough with different forms of games to be able to recognise one when we see it. The same is true for "art"; it's extremely hard to give "art" a strict definition and many aestheticians have tried over the centuries. Games and art have “family resemblances” and the same is true with “flow arts”; we might not be able to define the term but we can see similarities between distinct but related activities and can group them under the same heading.

For Wittgenstein, the meaning of a word is its use; how we use a word defines its meaning. When someone says “I’m going to the park to flow” you know what they mean (as long as you’re in the same social circles – part of the same language game, as Wittgenstein would say – as the person off to the park) in the same way you’d know what they meant if the said “I’m off to the park for a spin”. Both sentences amount to the same thing in this context.

So, while it is important and interesting to think about what names we should use to describe what we do, getting wrapped up in trying to find precise definitions is futile. Besides, that’s enough thinking for today. I’m off to practise, flow, spin, whatever…

(For a related article on artificially induced flow see here.)