At The Side Of The Road

It’s a slightly damp and cold Sunday morning. As I’ve written here on this blog previously, Sunday’s retain a special atmosphere, even for non-religious people and a postmodern society that no-longer seems to have religion at the heart of its weekly and daily routines but rather orientates its time largely around work, shopping and social media.

I live near to a tyre shop and usually on Sunday morning there’s one or two cars and their drivers parked outside with flat tyres. They made their way here in the ‘small hours’ and are now waiting for the shop to open. The cars are usually pretty fancy, but sadly lamed by a puncture that renders all of their gleaming technology, glossy bodywork and powerful engine redundant, now just a ton of useless metal, glass, plastic, and leather seating, until one crucial tyre is replaced and they are back on the road.

Like those cars, it only takes one thing to go wrong with me and my routines, my ways of working, for me to have to face-up to realities that I usually keep at bay by constantly ‘driving’, or at least working hard and in a way that makes me feel like I’m progressing. Sometimes, when I am forced to stop however, I might come to question the very idea of my ‘progress’ and begin to doubt the reasoning, the ‘rationale’, the logic of my work and life, the work that I like to think ‘is‘ my life – but is it? It’s hard to imagine who or what we might be, given another and very different social and economic system against and within which we might contextualise ourselves and find a purpose for our time alive.

I once watched interviews with East Germans who talked about how much they loved the excellent and equal educations they had received as citizens of a communist state. It quickly became apparent that their motivation for ‘success’ was fundamentally different from that of someone living in a capitalist society, and yes, it was very alluring and, in a way, beautiful and strangely humanised.

The sense of the self as striving always and only in the service of a collective, rather than feeling isolated and channelled into a private and personal pursuit of satisfaction and recognition, came across in their moving words and the nostalgic passion they had for their lives and works prior to the reunification of Germany and the assimilation of East Germany into a capitalist system.

This post is not simply advocating communism however. I also suspect there might be some truth in some of the horror stories (if not scientific histories) I have heard about the potential failings or follies of a grand, modern, collective state that strives for equality above all. The point, I think, here is rather to discuss how to use occasional lapses in our everyday routine when we are unexpectedly able to step back and notice the ‘bigger picture’, the broader perspective, the underlying attributes of the context in which we are working.

Today is a Sunday, which, as mentioned above, still seems, for many, or perhaps for the majority in this society, to be a ‘day of rest’. Also, this week, in my role as a lecturer, I have been on strike. I nevertheless can’t help but continue to develop my own works, writing new books, making music, as well as trying to rest or taking short walks. Given time away from our routine we have an opportunity to think more deeply about what and why we are doing, who we are and what we do. But ultimately, we can’t think TOO deeply about the meaning of our lives and works. Instead, we must learn, at some point, that we ‘never get to the bottom’ of ourselves or of the deepest questions about ourselves and our works.

Hence, we go on, always in a state of semi-consciousness, half-knowing, always processing that strange urge we feel to represent, to create, to re-think, and also to ask and strive and even plead for recognition or reward for our creativity. But time on strike, time in a sick bed, time by the side of the road with a flat tyre are all part of the same life and same journey, providing crucial moments in which, and from which to reconsider  before moving on.

 

 

 

CHANGE YOUR NAME: On not knowing who we are or what we are doing

More and more I notice the way that my writing my other creative endeavours seem to have a life of their own, if I will only let them be, let them breathe and allow them to ‘write’ and to make.

My generation grew up strongly influenced by (or might we say, ‘acknowledging the relevance of’) Roland Barthes small but brilliant and beautiful essay ‘The Death of The Author’ (1967). Among many of the gracefully accumulating profundities therein, one line famously reads:

Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.”

Like many artists I occasionally find a work or a piece of writing, made at some earlier time, and find myself puzzled by the question of how it came to be made or written. Some younger self, in a state of inspired activity, and probably in a rush -as we seem to be all of the time – flashed out a few sentences or created some images that can now be seen to have aged well.

However, perhaps we should not be surprised as in truth we know that we have trained ourselves, during the slow, painstakingly conscientious progress of a lifetime, to make our best work in a semi-conscious condition. As Barthes’ sentence above suggests, the body and mind are not clearly connected at the moment of creativity (writing, making), nor are body and pen, brush, keyboard etc. And nor is the pen, keyboard or brush clearly connected to the page, screen, paint, canvas etc. Rather, we have cultivated a series or sequence of dis-connections, insisting upon a fluid, tentative assemblage out of which something unknowable and unexpected is able to emerge.

Nor does the work arising from this procedure bear immediate scrutiny or judgement, but calls to be set aside, as rapidly as possible, lest our conscious judgements prove less well-developed than our semi-conscious utterances.

Hence time too becomes a tool that we have learned to wield in the making of anything of value and beauty and worthy of preservation. Time, whose shadow often falls upon us as a form of progress only to be feared, also becomes, in the artist’s hands, a means of cheating and even reversing that same time’s apparently merciless march.

Nevertheless, this strange creative activity, accurately described in a few words by Barthes, leaves us unusually vulnerable. As artists we spend our lives attuned, not to the sensible accumulation of securities – thus ensuring we are housed and comfortable in youth, maturity, retirement and dotage –  but to the twists and turns, rise and fall of a mysterious path whose aspect often appears inauspicious, all-too-risky, and which can lead us to contemplate despair only to take a sudden turn in the direction of achievement, recognition, reward and success – or of something at least that looks deceptively like these things.

In this way it is not only our author that is ‘dead’ (in the most positive sense and according to Barthes’ terminology); not only our grip on our pen and our grasp on our intention that ‘slips away’; and not only is it just in the moment of writing or making that we loosen our ties to our self, but, as Barthes might be seen to imply, it is our very subject”, that through and throughout a life in art becomes a “negative where all identity is lost”.

I have often thought it important that artists should each and all change our given birth names and choose our own as soon as we have recognised in ourselves the conviction to spend our life as an artist. Nevertheless, and regrettably, I have only once managed to do this, and for a relatively short period, in a way that convinced both myself and my audience.

We all know of many artists of all kinds, including writers, performers, singers who have liberated themselves from their familial identity by changing their names and thereby given a new and special freedom to each and every subsequent creative gesture, which is henceforth made by someone that the artist has invented for themselves and who has not been foisted upon them by relative strangers (our parents, their priests, local or national tradition etc.) But even for those of us who lack the audacity and panache to take an artist’s name, or who feel it is perhaps too late in our more or less successful ‘career’ to do so, it is well to recall Barthes’ idea and to acknowledge that he too, in the very moment of inscribing those influential and enduring words, did not know who he was nor what, exactly, he was doing.

 

 

 

 

 

ANIME, ENERGETICS, AND WEATHERING THE STORM

There’s a storm blowing today. It’s rattling the windows. The sky is grey and there’s a thin, wind-blown rain gusting over everything. Meanwhile I’m reading about Anime.

I’ve been watching Anime recently and becoming fascinated by them. An expert named Philip Brophy drew my attention to the link between Anime and animism – something I feel the need to think a lot more about.

Far from being a variant of Disney or a poor relation of cinema, Anime might be traceable back through an entirely different, non-European representational tradition, one that involves calligraphy, ideograms, a non-hierarchical relation between surface and depth, and an experience defined by enigmatic energies rather than by a mentally rationalised sensual experience (just look at Hokusai’s most famous image of a breaking wave as one possible starting point on a potentially long journey into this idea) .

When you start watching Anime you soon encounter a slippage of worlds. A character might pass from a garden into a secret garden wherein lives the past or some fantastic creatures. Thus any distinction between the everyday world and the world of dreams and imagination is merely temporary and porous.

This ‘becoming’, this tendency to transformation, is not only intrinsic to the studio-desk-based drawn imagery of Anime, it is, as mentioned above, also illustrative of a world made up of energies.

According to the calligraphic and ideogrammatic tradition of certain Asian cultures (of which Japan is one) the energy (chi) that goes into the making of a mark (or any perfected physical gesture) is as important an aspect of its value as any other consideration.

And so, today, as the weather buffets the windows and the meteorological  ‘low pressure’ creates the sense of a low, grey, moist sky, I don’t have to see myself as so distinct from all of that. I too am a little weather system, subject to periods of high and low pressure. And I am also part of the weather system that I might like to think of as ‘other’ and as ‘outside’.

It’s not just a polite English habit to connect moods to weather. Of course we are subject to and influenced by these swirling, broiling, and beaming energetic forces and are as likely to be cheered by the warmth of the sun on our cheek as we are to be dispirited by grim weather.

The anti-philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari were influenced by the Romantic anti-philosopher Nietzsche in seeking to understand human experience at a pre-linguistic and sub-cognitive sensual level, an experience of energies or energetics. Deleuze and Guattari coined the term ‘Body Without Organs’ to describe the way in which human experience can be de- (rather than dis-) organised.

Science likes and needs to ‘organise’, e.g. our bodies and our environments into distinct zones (and ‘organs’) and to attempt to comprehend them using vocabulary etc. But Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘Body Without Organs’ asks us to also consider something (though of course not a ‘thing’ at all) like a sky full of billowing clouds, or a desert of drifting dunes, as models of de-organization (they also use the term ‘deterritorialisation’).

We can still think of these as ‘bodies’ and yet see in them states of constant becoming and transformation, a kind of affirmed chaos that we can embrace to understand experience as a constant exchange and transformation of energies going on ‘beneath the R.A.D.A.R’ of the semiotic or linguistic realm.

Next time you watch Anime it may help to think of what you’re experiencing seeing in these ways. Good luck! Enjoy!,  and I hope you survive the storm.

 

 

 

The Secret Life Force of Pot Plants

I’ve just read Donna Haraway’s book ‘Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin In The Chthulucene‘ which has some useful ways of articulating a future in which we strive to divest ourselves of what she calls our human ‘exceptionalism’ and truly implicate ourselves in the planet’s processes – which she refers to as a kind of ‘composting’.*

Back in the 90s, when I was living through that hermit-phase, (yes, the one I am always going on about), I had practically nothing in my flat. At the start of that seven-year sojourn I purged myself of almost everything I owned and deposited it in a skip during one long and unusually focused night.

I retained a few clothes, a large wooden bowl that I used for fruit and for making rice salads, and a lovely houseplant that someone had given me because they were fed up with the way it sometimes rained its little spines down on their carpeted floor.

It was a beautiful and unusual plant and looked great in the emptied and whitened spaces in which I was now living. I researched a little and found the closest thing I could find to it was called an ‘Asparagus Fern’. Mine didn’t seem to precisely fit that description, and so I decided it was a unique or rare variant.

It was true that, once or twice a year its tall clouds of bristling little green spines turned brown and rain down but given the white-painted floorboards I had then, in my flat-come-studio, it was a pleasure to simply sweep them away (incidentally, I have always loved sweeping and have sometimes wished I could sweep for a living).

A great compensation for my fern’s occasional autumnal behaviour is its irregular, vigorous, almost unseemly outbursts of new Spring-like life. Once or twice a year (the plant seems to have its very own seasons) a new shoot appears from the earth in the pot (a pot that I have upgraded only once and is now too large and heavy to manipulate). Within a day – i.e. so fast that you can almost watch it grow – the new shoot rises up and reaches out into a bold new tendril. This then begins to burst with bright, pale-green, brand new spines that shine-out against the background of the more established, dark green spines.

Today, given the limited space inside the pot, and the age of the plant (I inherited it 27 years ago and it must have already been many years old then) I find myself wondering, just what is this virulent life force that bursts forth from its hiding place within the dark brown earth? Farmers and scientific agriculturists surely have a technical answer to this question, but still, to me, it retains cosmic, spiritual, even mystic qualities.

The question makes me think of the concept ‘Elan Vital‘ that I came across in the writings of Henri Bergson, or perhaps the ‘Will To Power‘ in Nietzsche’s philosophical schema, (which was partly inspired, I believe, by Schopenhauer’s similar interest in forces of nature). The romantic novelist D.H Lawrence also comes to mind as someone passionate about the life force in nature and how the human experience is not exceptional to it but caught up in it and a manifestation of it.

Without wanting to write too much here today I just wanted to share this essential mystery, concerning the ‘life force’ that sends  forth new shoots so vigorously from my pot plant, but which  also seem to implicate my, and our, very own life and our very own life force, i.e. manifesting and illustrating some energy that perhaps pervades the entire universe, or -as some say – is particular and local to this tiny, tumultuous planet.

* P.S. I don’t know if my own, perhaps neo-Romanticist thoughts here are really relevant to Donna Haraway’s writing, but, as I have created a co-incidence here, I will provide this link to Haraway giving a lecture on the theme of her book:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHwZA9NGWg0

 

 

 

 

Breathing Lesson

(N.B. I dedicate my post this week to my dear friend and inspiring colleague Dr. Kate Love, an expert in the field of ‘artist/writer’ or ‘writing as practice’, and who sadly passed away yesterday morning.)

Writing is important, and writing your weekly Blog is very important, but you also have to breathe, and in fact you have to breathe before you can write.

You have to be alive and reasonably well to do so.

At the age of 32 I had a kind of mental breakdown. I had just found my way back to art college after 10 years searching in the wilderness for what I knew I really needed, ART!

I had to join the course in the second year as I had already completed a year of a degree from which I dropped out and so couldn’t get a grant for that year (yes, this was just before fees and loans kicked in).

And the course was HARD! Hard in that I was asked to spend the summer suddenly immersed in mind-blowing (in my case, literally) postmodern theories and difficult to decipher, multi-layered writings, like those of Walter Benjamin, Hal Foster, Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault.

And DOUBLY HARD in that a Fine Art degree, at that time anyway, left you almost entirely to yourself to quite rapidly work through a huge and impossible seeming series of immense questions concerning art, yourself and what on earth ‘your art’ might mean and might be.

Nevertheless, it was the right place for me, and supportive in that it provided the context and structure I needed for my volcanic mind. But at the same time, it was a very public place for the very self-conscious person I then was, and of course undeniably competitive in that special way that artists are and must, it seems, always be. i.e. no matter how sensitive, generous and good hearted artists might be, they can’t seem to help guarding their inventions like a vixen proud of its cubs. One very seasoned artist friend once told me “… as a person I am very nice, but as an artist I am a monster”, and I think that, if we are honest about it, there is a lot of truth in that, a truth that we need to confront if we are to be rounded and honest as artists.

Now, I am running out of space, time, and perhaps testing your patience dear reader, and I have only just begun to introduce my theme of ‘breathing’ here. Suffice to say that, just as the terrifying creatures in H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ turn out to be susceptible to plain-old, ubiquitous water, so the only solution to my mental problems turned out to be breathing.

Yes, after 32 years on this earth it was time for me to learn how to breathe, and particularly learn how the way we breathe unarguably informs the way we think and feel, and furthermore profoundly influencing and determining both body and mind.

Now in middle-age, with old age on my horizon, I have come to note that many more basic things about living, that I had taken for granted all my life, turn out to be things that I need to consciously learn, or re-learn how to do. This includes eating, speaking, sleeping, walking and even using the toilet.

There’s something old and wise about this realisation that, not only do we not know everything and will never know everything, but that we do not even know the most basic things and need to constantly learn and relearn them.

And then there is also of course something very child-like about all of this.

The problem, it seems to me, is that hubristic in-between phase, when we are no-longer toddlers and not yet veterans of life, when we mistakenly believe we know how to live and how to do things, and when we are vain enough to believe in ‘knowledge’ per se.

Now, it’s time to forget all that. Before you write, speak or presume to make art, first breathe, learn to breathe, improve your breathing. Perhaps you could even look at the painting techniques of Lee Ufan for inspiration.

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lee-from-line-t07301

From Line 1978 by Lee Ufan born 1936

Let The Door Swing Shut

I close the door behind me when I sit down to write. I don’t have to. I have a door prop and I could use it to keep the door open. If I let it swing shut – rather than purposefully shutting it – I still feel a little mean, anti-social, and yet, there is something about a room with the door closed and containing only you and your writing that seems conducive to writing, loyal to writing, to somehow be something essential to writing.

It’s a strange thing that we become and want to become alone in writing and in order to write, and yet hope that others will read what we write, and in a way wish that as many people as possible will read what we have written.

Today’s technology seems to encourage this ‘Alone Together‘ (title of a book by Sherry Turkle) feeling, or ‘Alone But Not Lonely‘ (title of a book by Volker Grassmuck, with a Preface by yours truly) feeling.

We also have the relatively recent phenomena (first arising in Japan) of ‘Otaku’ and ‘Hikkikomori’ lifestyles in strands of which individual human beings seem to take the advantages of new technologies to live as apart from others as it is possible for them to do so, while nevertheless being implicitly or actively connected through the internet to what seems to be the entire world.

In my most recent book, titled ‘Technologies of Romance – Part II’, I wrote a chapter on this theme titled ‘Whole In One’ and really, I think this contains the core of my philosophy, if I have one, my ultimate world view on which my political and ethical beliefs are based.

It is probably rooted in Romanticism and I saw echoes of it in the William Blake exhibition I attended recently at Tate Britain in London. We could call it ‘micro/macrocosmic’ and I also, and often refer to it as ‘Holistic Relativism’.

Not that I am looking for anyone to agree with me or buy-in to my philosophy, but these ideas feel pretty consolidated in me now, having first crystalised during that seven-year period of isolation that I purposefully put myself through in the 1990s, and which I know I keep harking back to and writing about – but that’s because it was so formative and foundational of who and what I am today and still guides (as here) my thought, acts and creativity.

So, when I choose to let the door swing shut behind me, before booting-up a personalised laptop, with a singular password, I become highly individuated it seems, but only so as to try to access some heart of myself that might echo in the hearts of all others (‘The Whole In One’ – which is also the name of a song I wrote and recorded this year).

That may sound grandiose, but I suspect something like this lies at the heart of many artists and our practices. We want and need to be as alone as possible, in order to be able to access something very precious that is not the same as the magic of working with others creatively. Indeed, we might not be able to interact with others creatively without having honed our own particular abilities and positions.

We let the door swing shut behind us, but only in order to ‘collaborate’ with everyone, with the whole world, and at best, with the whole universe.

 

 

Writing, Reading & Bird Sense

The sun shines, and little birds sing outside the window. Who is to say that they don’t have all the answers, all the knowledge we need?

Inside, I take an opportunity for a lie-in, but unable to stop thinking about my job, about research, reading, writing, and plough on with a book that I find both fascinating and difficult to grasp, to encompass, to master.

But it’s always been like this. Students are often frustrated, like me, that what they feel they need to read is something they also feel they cannot read or cannot read adequately.

Having often felt challenged and frustrated and blocked in this way, many years ago I had to reconcile myself to my own way of reading, just as I had to find my own way of making art, of writing, of living, of surviving etc.

The important thing is to remain positive, and not become disheartened. And so, when I read, I note those things I DO understand, those new words I have acquired by looking them up in the dictionary, and I note that, even when I am tusselling with a sentence, trying to understand it, I am exercising my mind, and something personal is in play as I try to impose my own reading on the words, while concerned that it might not be the ‘correct’ or intended meaning proposed by the author.

I grew up in a generation inspired by the idea of the ‘death of the author’ and the ‘birth of the reader’. And the implications of this idea still have profound, far-reaching and liberating implications.

Once we have acknowledged and engaged with the writing of others as something to which we feel newly entitled to bring our own responses and interpretations, this also has very interesting implications for our own writings.

After all, how will our own writing be read? How could we make it less equivocal? Or perhaps more so? How is a text to be read now, or at another time, when the world as the context for any reading of the text has changed?

All of this, as I hope you can see, makes reading and writing into a swirling realm of playful uncertainties, and as such might alleviate our dread of a text we find ‘impenetrable’ or that we read in fear of revealing our own ignorance or lack of ability.

There are other sounds outside the window, the scoring of the sky by airplanes, the jokes and banter of men working outside, the chatter of children, and cars, cars, cars driving past.

I can’t hear the birds now, but just as the world is full of sounds that we do not decipher in any specific linguistic or semiotic manner, so there is surely an element of our writing, and of the writing of others, that is not its meaning but something more sensory, sensuous, another kind of ‘sense’ that we make – make to each other – something like a scent, or the timbre of a voice, that subtly informs, or may even contradict, the messages that, on a conscious, rational, grammatical and syntactical level, we are passing, or attempting to exchange.