Sunsets -“It’s Your Life…”

A human life might be divided into chronological time: increments, minutes, hours, days and weeks, as well as seasons and years. This week culminated in the longest day, or Summer Solstice, which I was lucky enough to celebrate with some Swedish friends who really know how to do it (floral headdresses, schnapps, wonderful Swedish food, traditional singing, dancing etc.)

But today also feels like the end of a rich but quite difficult week, when the workload at the end of the academic year sometimes seemed almost physically and mentally impossible. But somehow you just dig through it, one hour at a time, one day at a time.

Fortunately, because I am lucky enough to work as an arts lecturer, even in the most demanding of times I am constantly in the company of art students – some of the most wonderful people in the world – and also in the company of art and ideas, which I love and, in a way, live for.

On one relaxing evening this week I went to the cinema and saw a movie called ‘Sunset‘ directed by László Nemes. I felt, from the outset that it was some kind of masterpiece and unlike any film I’d ever seen, so I have to recommend it (and would like to see it again).

Even so, I eventually concluded it might be a flawed masterpiece, i.e. visually, technically, conceptually and creatively stunning, but perhaps still lacking in that additional narrative element or arc that might have fulfilled me by taking my emotions on the kind of journey I like cinema to provide as well as innovative cinematography, detailed and convincing historical reconstructions etc.

As a further way of helping me to get through a particularly tough week, I managed to pursue my increasing fascination with the history of popular songs and songwriting. I focused this week on The Kinks, a group whom I felt I liked but knew only a little about.

It proved to be a rich experience, as I discovered many songs that I didn’t know were written by The Kinks but which had become hits for other artists (‘Stop Your Sobbing’, ‘Thank You For The Days’, ‘I Go To Sleep’ … etc).

Plus, I got to better understand the special contributions The Kinks had made, through from their seminal, rocky, two-chord riffs and shuffles (‘You Really Got Me Going’, ‘All Day and All of The Night’ etc.) through many very inventive, sardonic and lyrical takes on modern society (‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Lola’, ‘Dandy’, ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, ‘Mr Pleasant etc.)’ plus many simply wonderful and moving and original songs like ‘Waterloo Sunset’ – one of their most famous (and a song I think of at least once a week, every time I cross Waterloo Bridge).

Studying The Kinks’ catalogue (after recently studying those of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Tracy Chapman, Bob Marley, the Beatles, The Beach Boys, Elvis Costello etc. etc.) makes me feel, more than ever, that pop songs (which I also write) and essays (which I also write) and lectures (which I also write) are not really so different, and that we just might be able to start exchanging one for the other.

I think I’ll illustrate this week’s post with a link to The Kinks singing ‘Tired of Waiting’, especially so that I can ask you, the reader, to notice and enjoy how  sweetly the singer sings the words “It’s Your Life And You Can Do What You Want” (in a repeated ‘middle-eight’ section).

The sentiment of these softly serious words emerges within the song like an innovative island, momentarily transforming the pervasive  skiffly / jangly tone. Here (hear!) the young singer’s vocal chords shape a message to his entire generation. But this message can, like all ‘classics’, also resonate today, in other times and in other (open) hearts.

 

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Speaking and Being

A friend wanted to buy me a short course as a gift and so I chose a two-day public speaking workshop. I’ve been teaching at art colleges for twenty years and my colleagues and students probably think I am quite an experienced and confident public speaker. But I know my inconsistencies, and also know that a lot more is possible for me as a public speaker.

In addition, I have increasingly become aware of the crucial importance of all kinds of public speaking, to our well-being, our sense of self, self-esteem, self worth etc.

On the course there were a wonderful variety of people, all coming for different reasons, and all ultimately teaching each other, as well as learning from our excellent teacher. Among many, varied and rounded  exercises, we focused on the tiniest details of sound production with different parts of the mouth, throat, lips, teeth, palate and head.

One fellow student spoke about gaining confidence in doing something as simple as asking others to make room on a crowded bus or tube. Another spoke about being able to politely and firmly break-off a conversation that might have developed with a stranger encountered on a journey.

All these examples, along with the more obvious aim of successfully giving a speech, a paper, or a lecture, drew us in to consideration of just how formative public speaking is to almost every aspect of our lives. We can use it to free ourselves, to assert ourselves, to develop ourselves, to make our feelings and ideas understood, and to respect ourselves – or we can just ignore it and simply accept the public speaker we are now, with all the complacency, limitation and resignation that implies.

At the end of the workshop everyone gave wonderfully varied two-minute presentations, which showed just how much we had all learned in just two days about all aspects of public speaking. To prepare, I wrote about double the amount of script needed, waxing lyrical about some of the above, then edited my text ruthlessly back, always considering how it would feel in the mouth, and how it would project to the audience.

To illustrate this post, I will simply paste the final version of my little speech (about speech) below, in grey. If you are interested in this theme, and based in or near London, there are excellent and reasonably priced short courses in public speaking at: The Mary Ward Center, Morley College, and City Lit. Or look at the prospectus of your local adult education college.

Say Your Piece, Stand Your Ground!
I love to hear politicians and other experts on the radio, as well as so-called ‘ordinary people’ who phone-in to have their say. I don’t like to be distracted by lurid TV pictures, but prefer to concentrate on people trying to express, defend and promote themselves by means of effective speech.

However, I have come to realise that a truly excellent speaker is a rare thing. Even the radio’s crème-de-la-crème; hosts and guests alike, constantly fall short. This may be why one long-running, popular radio programme features professional speakers simply trying to complete a single minute of spontaneous speech without error.

When I do hear perfection, I am awed. Last week a spokesperson for the protest movement in Hong Kong was interviewed, and the formal qualities of her speech gave her political position unequivocal conviction. What she said didn’t immediately end the conflict, but in her words, it seemed to me, you could hear the right side of history speaking. (Incidentally, the Hong Kong government seems to now be backing down).

This, I think, is what fascinates me about public speaking. We have a duty, to ourselves and to the wider world, to say clearly and convincingly what it is that we have to say; to take our words as seriously as anyone else’s, and thus to take ourselves fully seriously. Once we are able to say our piece, we might be able to stand our ground, and in this way convince others of the value of our perspective, our experience, our belief.

What to Do Next – the key to it all?

In a previous post I wrote about Kairos and Chronos, different forms or modes of time. The former seems to better describe the time that artists need and, at our most ‘artistic’ live by, while Chronos seems to describe the time to which we reluctantly comply, imposed upon us as really our greatest inconvenience or injustice.

And yet, the two are not so clearly distinguished, and nor is one one simply good and the other simply evil. We need to go beyond any such simplistic binary dualism here. We will always need to see, feel, use and experience time in a multifaceted manner.

Hence, whenever I am asked to write, I immediately ask for a deadline (and a word-count). Parameters like this really motivate me, as does the sense of an audience, a context, an ear, an editor, a readership.

Having my writing published in a professional context might just have been the biggest thrill of my life. Once, I recall, as a rather lost character, in those hermit-like ‘wilderness’ years between BA and MA studies, consulting – in a rather unprofessional and informal way – the famous leader of one of London’s most famous MA courses. He briefly looked at some work I had handed him (in a format that was almost impossible for him to judge with the naked eye) and responded with just four words: “Do what thrills you”.

This may sound simple enough, making the artist perhaps feel rebuffed while also making the artist think about pleasure, freedom, subjectivity, fun etc. And yet this wise teacher’s words were, I knew immediately, a kind of puzzle and a provocation. In fact they dug deep and probed my aims and motivations and I can honestly say they still do, maintaining the currency for me to continue considering them here, many years later.

Art students, emerging artists, and perhaps even established artists (we might justifiably say) are always trying to work out what to ‘do’, what it is we should or must ‘do’ especially given the fact that art’s especially expansive license seems to invite us to do everything, anything and nothing.

But this may be where Kairos comes in useful. While Chronos might make objective demands on us and, as noted above, both oppress and motivate us, it is only Kairos perhaps that will enable  us to choose, to decide -if not for ever, if not for the foreseeable or merely near future, then at least for now – what it is that we should or must ‘do’. As all artists will recognise, just knowing what to ‘do’ changes everything, at least until the next time we don’t know what it is we should or must do.

Towards the end of those aforementioned ‘hermit’ or ‘wilderness’ years I wrote a short story that emerged from the experience of intense studio life and studio living. The story is called ‘A Perfect Picture Of What to Do Next‘. I later edited it and published it in my first little book, titled Where Is That Light Now?‘.

A Perfect Picture Of What to Do Next‘ is a story, and quite oblique, and yet I believe it might just contain the core, the kernel of everything I learned during those seven very concentrated and isolated years. Just knowing what to do next, what you should, could and must do, is somehow the key to it all. Perhaps that is so obvious that is of no help at all. But I also do think that it helped me, and continues to help me, and that it might help you too.

I’ll just illustrate this post with one or two images of the little book to which I have referred above.

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Surfing the Blues

 

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I continue to think about vulnerability, chaos and blues.

These, it seems to me, not only have to be dealt with or cured but incorporated into a practice that is also a life.

Blues musicians, and many singers and poets of course have a long tradition of turning difficult feelings into shared beauty and universal messages.

For some reason, the contemporary artist has, in recent decades, been trained to be more cerebral, strategic, controlled, ironic, rational and cynical than this model, thus avoiding this kind of ‘trouble’.

This doesn’t really work for me, and so it’s been interesting to see, in my own thoughts, the work of my students and the ‘research’ of my colleagues an increasing interest in feeling, ‘affect’ and that word ‘trouble’.

It is the theorist Donna Haraway, I believe, who is generally regarded as having coined the axiom ‘staying with the trouble’ (part of the title of one of her books); a ‘trouble’ that perhaps arose form Judith Butler’s earlier title ‘Gender Trouble’ (a book that heralded the popularistation and proliferation and affirmation of previously more marginal ‘queer theory’).

So today, it is possible for me to draw upon all of this as a resource, to see that a bluesman or blueswoman is or was, just like Haraway, or like one of my students, ‘staying with the trouble’ (and not avoiding, curing or medicating it) in an attempt to acknowledge and work constructively with all the difficulties of a life, and particularly of a creative life.

Above, I also used the words ‘vulnerability’ and ‘chaos’, so I’ll just say a few words (to you and to myself) about those, before ending.

Chaos is frightening. We would like our lives and careers to be both consistent and dynamic, for them to have consistent momentum while going from strength to strength, achievement to achievement. But in my experience, this is usually an unattainable fantasy.

It seems that we are necessarily more like surfers who have to dawdle for a time, perhaps even feeling a little nauseous through inactivity,  passively accepting the effects of our environment upon us. Until we are, now and then, able to harness a certain temporal energy, an event, force, direction or moment of focused creativity. Then we can rise and momentarily stand and see for miles all around us as we are transported on a wave of our own achievement.

Enjoy it while it lasts, because it cannot last forever. Soon we are pulling our board uncomfortably up a beach that hurts our feet, then back out there dawdling in a discomforting swell again.

When I use the word ‘necessary’ above I mean that, without periods of Blues and Chaos we are just not able to locate the rare and special and (importantly) unexpected elements that we need to bring together into our next creative achievement or formation.

I mean that we necessarily have to make ourselves vulnerable, stay sensitised and ‘with the trouble’ in order to remain true to engage deeply with our own creative project, and to avoid the temptation of merely repeating ourselves, ‘exploiting’ or ‘capitalising on’ our previous success.

I’d like to illustrate this post with a song rather than just a picture, so here is a YouTube link to:

 

 

THE TIMES

As some of my students reminded me this week, the people we loosely refer to as ‘the ancient Greeks’, held dear at least two, very different concepts of time – chronos and kairos.

The former is the idea of time with which we seem to be most familiar, i.e the ‘chronological’ time that gives order to our minutes, hours, days,weeks, months and years, and thus to our lives, identities and societies – or so we might like to think.

Kairos, however, demarcates a sense of time as event-ful, or event-ual, perhaps unpredictable and even unformed, enabling it to be laced and laden with a sense of event, possibility, drama, opportunity.

Interestingly, the plural of kairos also means ‘the times’, and in this familiar phrase we can discern a sense of the momentousness of the present, the zeitgeist perhaps, a qualitative rather than merely quantitative (chronos) notion of time.

When I started my ‘ONLY YOU’ blog a few years ago, I decided to combat the chaos of the internet by always posting the same amount of words (not more than 750) at the same time (by Friday at noon) every week. I took this idea from a retiring print journalist who had spoken of the way these old-school, lo-tec strictures had shaped the qualities, styles, excitement and pleasures of her profession.

Since I re-started my Blog a few weeks ago (after a gap of a year or more) I decided to relax these parameters. So now I have promised only to write ‘a few’ words a week here and now I have also decided to be more relaxed about the time of publication (though I still intend to keep to posting about once every seven days).

Politics and politicians have been buzzing in my mind all week, as I suspect they have yours too. In terms of chronos and kairos, they well know that politics has an inordinate amount to do with timing. They ‘kick cans down roads’ or consign policies and reports to ‘the long grass’. They also know that ‘a week is a long time in politics’ – suggesting it is not subject to normal measurement (chronos) but is far more unpredictable and strangely elastic (kairos).

For the artist of course, chronos is the burdensome, objective, mechanically and mathematically measured ticking down of a clock that reminds us of all we have not done or not yet done well enough. Fortunately we have kairos too to unexpectedly gift us a creative way forward just when we are feeling blocked, failing, miserable and lacking whatever might be necessary for us to rise to the occasion of and fulfill our best ideas and potential

It is, after all, chance, surprise (almost deified in our belief system) and the gift  of creativity that we live for and live on. It literally feeds or starves us, allows us to be happy and fulfilled, or depressed and yearning, to pay the rent or to fear the loss of our home.

The logical, measured, mathematical, objective world of chronos may therefore appear to have the upper hand in this society, and yet the artist should always be assured that kairos is also our ever-present, indeed permanent companion, who, for better or worse, also represents the reality of our experience and determines our possibilities.

It is not particularly perverse or radically different to cultivate this relationship with kairos, after all, as above, our politics and politicians (as we clearly, currently see and are about to see even more clearly) are also au fait with kairos. The difference between the artist’s relationship with kairos and the politicians’ is, perhaps, that the politicians all too often attempt to intrumentalise, or even ‘weaponise’ kairos, using it to nefarious ends.

The artist meanwhile, initially has to learn to be available for kairos to use us, as when it so chooses, and only gradually, artfully and subtly, to cultivate this relationship in such a subtle way that its mysterious ways becomes part of our consequently esoteric and personal approach to practice.

It is difficult to think of an appropriate image with which to illustrate this post, so I have just chosen a few photographs, snapped at opportune moments with a phone camera during the past few days and week , and each showing a sense of changing light, event, or weather.

N.B. Kairos also translates as ‘weather’, hence the idea of an artist or politician or other influential person who is so successful in their endeavours as to, not only contribute to a given context, but to create an entirely new context, or ‘change the weather’.

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GATHERINGS

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‘At The Red Light

I Gather My Thoughts –

Denied Momentum

I Catch-up With Myself –

While I Wait

Desire and Will

Are Curtailed –

I Look About Me

And No-Longer

Only Forwards –

Momentarily Entering

A Time  And Space

Without Direction –

Until The Light

Changes To Green’

(‘Gatherings‘ by Paul O’Kane, May 2019)

One of my favourite musical artists, Van Morrison, wrote a song called ‘Underlying Depression‘ and that seems a fair description of something I’ve been feeling for a few weeks now. I’m not letting it disable me, but it is there, like a dull rock inside, full of doubt, regret, frustration, fear and negativity. I just get on with what I have to do, and this keeps it at bay, but I know it doesn’t truly confront or get rid of it.

Artists speak about their ‘work’ in ways that might sound pretentious to people whose ‘work’ is long hours of very poorly paid and meaningless ‘alienated’ labouring (I have done plenty myself, but have been lucky enough to also be able to escape it). Nevertheless, an artist does feel a strong compulsion to make what, it seems, we have to make, and when we don’t or can’t make it, it hurts and keeps hurting until we do make it. Thus, it is, indeed our ‘work’!

Furthermore, I think this has something to do with the way I have been feeling, and I am looking forward to breaking through some kind of mental, spiritual, creative ‘logjam’. I plan to make a new album of popular music and a new book this year, and to do more to reconcile my two or three careers in Fine Art, Popular Music, and Writing.

These have often seemed in such a conflict, but I believe I am starting (rather late in life) to synthesisise  -through e.g. writing chapters on popular music in my two most recent books, and through the albums I have made, always against all odds, and in a kind of state of shame and embarassment that always just had to be worked through, in order to gain the new powers that were waiting on the other side of those negative blocks and fears.

I had some great teaching experiences this week, and it truly is a privilege to work with the next generation of up and coming artists. As for shows, movies etc. the most notable things that happened included watching ‘Winter Sleep‘ (2014) an incredibly, beautifully intelligent Turkish film by the master Nuri Bilge Ceylan – who was compared with Bergman for this movie. It also has traces of Chekhov and Dostoevsky laced into the narrative and the wonderful philosophical dialogues. The acting is just wonderful, as is the Anatolian mise-en-scene.

The other significant cultural event was to attend the artist’s talk by HAEGUE YANG about her current show TRACING MOVEMENT. She spoke for a solid hour and a half in conversation with Yung Ma, Curator, Contemporary Art and Prospective Creation at the Centre Pompidou, Paris. She introduced us to signiifcant depths of her show and her wider practices and processes.

 

 

 

 

SOHO Solitudes

2019-03-28150663Visiting Anna Bariball’s show (titled ‘Fade’) at Frith Street Gallery, London, I found myself sitting alone on the floor of the space for a long time. I felt a little like someone who has wandered into a church and there found a special kind of isolation – call it solitude.

Bariball’s video captivated me, with its simple but profound evocation of a wind turbine’s shadow raking regularly across aspects of the landscape in which she grew-up. The videos have the look of tinted photographs and their colouring slowly changes as you watch them.

I found myself writing, not poetry but perhaps poetic lines in response, hence in my notebook you will find:

“The scythe

of time

relentlessly

casts

its shadow

over lives

trapped timid

in its grid.

Soft appeals

in silent sways

are cowed

blushing peculiar hues

in attempts

to escape

to dis – appear”

Followed by:

“I came inside to find a more real life”

There are a lot more notes there, but I won’t expand further.

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My other SOHO revelation yesterday was the photographs of Dave Heath at The Photographers Gallery. Go and see these if you also look for profound, moving, perhaps quasi-religious or sacred experiences in art. I have never encountered such subtle photography that, by apparently simple and commonplace means touches some well-known but rarely represented essence of humanity in its most individuated moments.

Heath wrote (and I fully concur): “I had no community in terms of the experience of a real family in the here and now, that’s why I had the need to enter back into the human community. I did so by inventing a poetic form that would bind that human community, if only symbolically.”

It seems to me that this might be the highest aim for every artist, not reveling in the ‘formless’ but achieving a personal and contemporary version of such a ‘poetic form’.