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The Possibilities of Paper

"No scissors. No tape. No glue." Three provocative sentences lead us into Vanessa Gould's riveting documentary Between the Folds by giving us origami's ground rules. A single sheet of folded paper is the sole medium and means brilliant minds around the world use to explore mathematics to vanguard art, industrial design to pharmacology, and seemingly anything in between (as seen in photos 1 – 2). It may take one fold. It may take 1000. But each of the filmmaker's featured origamists takes us to inspiring, thought-provoking places we've never been.

Organized thematically by archetypes, the practitioners – ten, all internationally known – give us access to their material processes as well as the creative concepts and urges that drive them.  Michael LaFosse is the only practitioner in the world who makes his own medium – handmade paper of various colors which he also sells to other artisans. Eric Joisel (who passed away shortly after the film was made – seen in photo 3) is as expressive and gregarious as his astonishingly detailed sculpture-like people are. But then we enter more cerebral territory.

Father and son team Martin and Erik Demaine, both professors at MIT take their queue from computational theory – that is, problem-solving via algorithms. Erik, being 22 at his academic appointment, is the youngest MIT professor in history and the top origami theorist in the world. His youthful wonder clearly animates his professional work, which he says he'd not do unless it was "fun" and "stayed fun" – this, along with his interest in glassblowing and improv comedy. The "no scissors" rule is cut out, however, with the "fold and one cut" problem he articulates, which is the concept (or discovery) that any conceivable shape, composed of straight sides, can be made from just one straight cut of appropriately-folded paper.

Such abstract ideas have real application, though, even life-saving ones. Robert J. Lang, a physicist turn origamist, sees folding techniques as a creative heuristic for solving real-world problems. One is the air bag. Where ought the crease patterns be in flattening a 3-D polyhedron bag to fit it in a steering wheel? Or space technology. How can panels for satellites and transmissive telescopes be effectively deployed? Lang can provide answers.

Paul Jackson (as seen in photo 4) appreciates profound simplicities, what transformations can occur in a single fold or "one crease." He admits many origami enthusiasts don't appreciate his sometimes minimalist aesthetic; after all, he's not making paper animals whose success can be measured by their likeness to real ones. He works mainly with pleats, instead, which gives paper its own strange elasticity, and colors the paper with chalk and pastels, which is then sealed, to culminate in organic, decorative sculptures akin to the geometries of aquatic shells.

Between the Folds is a beautifully created work in itself, as Ms. Gould herself presses together themes of science and art, analytic thinking with imaginative dreaming. She was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about the film and her experience making it. When I asked what drew her to the subject, how she "discovered" it, she found that it simply resonated with her own practices.

I found it purely by accident.  I was initially drawn in by its pure mix of math and aesthetics.  And it ended up being a nearly perfect metaphor for a lot of things I'd been thinking about - in terms of art, creativity and process - for a while. 

I then asked what she found particularly eye-opening or surprising about origami, given that the possibilities seem endless.

I learned so much from the people in the film and the ideas at the root of their work.  I guess the main thing, which I observed first hand, is that creativity is the spine of things that are truly new and beautiful, even crazy math and science stuff. 

Even documentary films, we see. Between the Folds was been featured on PBS's Independent Lens and won a 2010 Peabody award, in addition to receiving a slew of film festival awards since its release in 2008. If you're a scientifically-minded artist, or artistically-minded scientist, or just like the rest of us – curious about what a sheet of paper can do – this film will give you plenty to think about.

All photos courtesy of Green Fuse Films.