Memory & Becoming: ‘A Hesitation of Things’

This is the second week on which I can write from what I can call my hew home. Just like an oceanic journey, I experienced severe nausea while between these two different lands, these two different islands, these two different homes.

Like a snail or a tortoise, I guess my home becomes, in some way, also part of my body, so changing home is neither physically nor psychologically easy. We are losing, giving-up and letting-go of our old home, just as much as we are gaining, claiming, and taking hold of our new home. All of this happens continuously, seamlessly, without any clear sense of break or rupture. Hence the nausea perhaps?

In fact, all of our lives as and in becoming (rather than being) are marked by a similar process that we can’t really represent to ourselves or give shape to. We grow and change by the second and microsecond, shedding skin, losing hairs, growing hairs and fingernails, changing our minds, ageing, forgetting and remembering. And all of this, again, in a fluid, baroque, complex form that is impossible to map. And yet we live with it, gaining necessary orientation from language – our gender, our name, our age, our address, our occupation, class income, nationality, education, as well as our moods and feelings.

As I’ve mentioned in previous weeks, in the process of moving, every single thing I own was turned over, upside down and placed back in a new space and in new relationships with everything else. All that I own is still here and yet all refreshed and renewed by this activity. But this morning I’ve been thinking more about memory and how it plays its part in all of the above.

Proust famously wrote his experimental modern novel prioritising the under-appreciated influence of memory on our lives and identities and societies. He seems to have been influenced by the ideas of Henri Bergson, who wrote a book called ‘Matter & Memory’ (and who was related to Proust’s family by marriage). But the motivation for the novel may have also been the challenge to find an adequate (and adequately scientific) representation (following and departing from e.g. Naturalists/Realists), of modernity itself and our place within it.

Roland Barthes famously wrote * that Proust’s ingenious novel wends its ways through hundreds of pages of unprecedentedly beautiful and detailed description and observation only to reach the precise point at which, and only at which, for the protagonist, and implicitly for we the readers too, the writing of such a novel (the very novel we have just completed reading) becomes possible to write and whose writing can thus ensue. In this way the novel’s beginning and end, its reading and its writing become simultaneous and all that comes between its beginning and its end slips out of time and space (which also happens to be what happens to us when we are most immersed in the pleasures of reading).

In our lives of constant becoming and change, something of us (though not always the same thing) needs to be remembered while other things of or about us need to be forgotten. Thus we proceed through time and life, always shedding skin while growing new skin, always shedding all kinds of aspects of ourselves which are lost to memory while necessarily remembering that which we need in order to create some orientatingly consistent sense of self or identity. Perhaps all things exist or rather persist in this manner.

This was the question at the heart of my PhD project, completed in 20009 and titled ‘A Hesitation of Things‘ – it’s available as a PDF on my website (www.okpaul.com). I.e. in order to ‘be’ and to ‘be a thing’, a thing requires a constant state of hesitation, lest the thing (which might be ourselves) simply dissipates in a sudden rush of unformed becoming. I couldn’t prove it scientifically and so I wrote around and about it creatively, as an artist. The title, the idea and the question all derived from a brief statement made by Gilles Deleuze while he was explaining Bergson’s theories.

*Proust himself, despite the apparently psychological character of what are called his analyses, was visibly concerned with the task of inexorably blurring, by an extreme subtilization, the relation between the writer and his characters; by making of the narrator not he who bas seen
and felt nor even he who is writing, but he who is going to write (the young man in the novel- but, in fact, how old is he and who is he? – wants to write but cannot; the novel ends when writing at last becomes possible), Proust gave modem writing its epic.


ROLAND BARTHES ‘The Death of the Author’ 1967

* “Proust himself, despite the apparently psychological
character of what are called his analyses, was visibly concerned with the task of inexorably blurring, by an extreme
subtilization, the relation between the writer and his
characters; by making of the narrator not he who bas seen
and felt nor even he who is writing, but he who is going to
write (the young man in the novel
[…] – wants to write but cannot; the novel
ends when writing at last becomes possible), Proust gave
modem writing its epic.”

From Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author‘ – 1967

From the dark end of the street To the bright side of the road

OK, so Broadband is holding up (‘touch wood’). We succeeded in moving home. It felt a bit like a mission to the moon and back, and when it was completed I felt like Danny Boyle might have felt after completing the Olympics Opening Ceremony. It was a surprisingly huge and complex undertaking. The excellent friend/helpers who came with a van to help us ended up doing a 12-hour day.

So this week I am looking out of a new window. This time it’s low down. The new flat is semi-basement. But the view is pleasant enough; a yard with a shed and some plants and things. It’s also quieter because this is a cul-de-sac ending in a park.

So, there are MANY positives, but the change seems to have taken a lot out of me, and probably out of everyone involved. As you get older you become more acquainted with more aspects of health and ill-health. Things take longer to heal, you have to deal with multiple health issues at once, and what I learned this week was that the relationship between mind and body, stress, anxiety and the body are far more insidious, stark and profound than I’ve ever anticipated before. I experienced severe nausea every day for a week, and the waves still come and go. Seeing as I had no trouble eating etc. it seems this must all be an aspect of extreme, though semi-conscious anxiety.

But I want to be as upbeat as possible, because the new place is beautiful in many ways, and I have had some moments of joy in just going through the complex process of finding new places and new relationship for all the things that make up my life and work. I don’t feel guilty about having a lot of books and archives, of drawings, writings, music etc. I came around to figuring this week that, yes, this is my life, all of this. This is what I came into this world to do and this is what I have done. I am not going to bequeath any children or property or wealth to this world but everything I have done and that I keep together here, is, to me, a contribution of some kind, precious in a certain way and justifiably preserved and cared for, organised and collected.

Furthermore, as I think I mentioned last week, with another Lockdown descending and such an uncertainty about the future, each of us having our own concrete libraries and treasured things and tools and equipments seems like a good idea. The Internet promises free, virtual, immaterial access to all that we need, but in fact one person’s own clunk and clumsy collection takes on a new value in a world where we might find ourselves increasingly silo’d for who knows how long. Here I have a lot of resources that I want to use more and if possible share more.

One of my joyful moments was getting my turntable, amplifier and speakers set-up. The first song I played on it was Van Morrison’s ‘Bright Side Of The Road‘ form the album ‘Into The Music‘. It’s one of the happiest songs I can think of and it’s well worth really listening to everything that is going on within it and thinking through the magical spirit that is music, how it can energise the singer, the musicians and the audience, and for 50 years now without sounding at all tired or redundant. Amazing stuff. Give it a listen right now, play it loud – the neighbours won’t mind for 5-minutes – and make sure you dance around the room and shake your ass and throw your arms about when you do so. I promise you, it really helps, and is further, and more positive proof, of the strange relationships that can occur between mind and body

I hope Van won’t mind me providing this link and the lyrics below:

BRIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD

From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road
We’ll be lovers once again
On the bright side of the road
Little darlin’, come with me
Won’t you help me share my load
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the roadInto this life we’re born
Baby sometimes, sometimes we don’t know why
And time seems to go by so fast
In the twinkling of an eye
Let’s enjoy it while we can (let’s enjoy it while we can)
Won’t you help me share my load (help me share my load)
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the roadInto this life we’re born
Baby sometimes, sometimes we don’t know why
And time seems to go by so fast
In the twinkling of an eyeLet’s enjoy it while we can (let’s enjoy it while we can)
Help me sing my song (help me sing my song)
Little darling come alone
To the bright side of the roadOn the dark end of the street (on the dark end of the street)
To the bright side of the road (to the bright side of the road)
Little darling come alone
On the bright side of the road
On the dark end of the street (on the dark end of the street)
To the bright side of the road (to the bright sight of the road)
We’ll be lovers once again
On the bright side of the road
Yeah, we’ll be, we’ll be lovers once again
On the bright side of the road

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Van Morrison

Bright Side of the Road lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Passing the time between this now and that now-longed-for then.

The days have really drawn-in now, short, grey and wet. Now we have to rally our own moods as that of the environment is oppressive, unrewarding, inauspicious. We do so by listening to music, even dancing around a little to raise our spirits or resurrect them, and/or by telling and listening to stories. These can be stories from books or from our real lives. It doesn’t matter which they all pass the time, and this is a time that we actually want to pass.

The office.sudio/study/archve/library n which I’m working is now breaking down, so that some shelves are emptied of books. These lie tied in bundles in another room, adorned with old newspaper and awaiting transportation. Other shelves are less populated than they were, having been subjected to an editing process. Meanwhile, everything has been looked-at, turned-over, judged, evluated and either set aside to be give, or discarded if not kept. The result is that everything is also now better packaged and organisd, haveing place for itself as a category. And this helps me to believe that I have made good decisions.

Even so, I am still buzzing with trepidation about the fact that the new flat seems much smaller. It’s certainly lower, as we are trading the extremely high ceilings of a first floor flat in a Georgian house for the unusually low ceilings of a basement flat in another Georgian house. But no matter how you try, and even if went to the trouble of measuring everything up, one set of spaces is just not comparable with another set of spaces. Experience has shown me that you just have to transfer all the material you have decided to keep and start to work creatively with the new space, trying to avoid bringing with you the baggage of the solutions you found in the previous space. These are not helpful and need to be discarded in order to allow the new solutions to emerge.

As I’ve mentioned several times here in recent weeks, it would be nice to comply with the ‘decluttering’ vogue or ideology of late capitalism, but suspect it is just another way to make us more compliant with the needs of the market. Perhaps it’s the very awkwardness of a clumsy, clunky archive of dubious value that makes it valuable, as an exception to the rule. After all, no-one (and not even the internet) has the particular collection of books, DVDs, tools, artworks, texts, and records (incomplete writings, records of seminars and lectures) etc. that I have. It’s this perverse idiosyncrasy that I want to treasure and protect, even if apparently impractical.

It also struck me this week, as the world goes into new Lockdowns and 2nd and 3rd waves of the pandemic, that it might be wise to have an idiosyncratic resource, something personal and unique, something to ‘offer’ and share, something to explore and exploit as we all retreat into personal, protective silos. I’ve ben amazed at the volume of materials I’ve produced over the years and which I’ve rediscovered in this process of rationalisation. I can see the value in all of it, the question remains as to how it might inform current and future works, or be given more presentable shapes and forms – as e.g. new books of writings and drawings and or new/old lectures etc.

Well, hopefully, if all goes to plan, this time next week I will be posting from the same desk in a new apartment. Daylight-saving (or ‘putting the clocks back’) might have improved our prospects as we progress through the winter days and nights. Hopefully we will all be safe and well, though the relentless news bulletins place us all in potential peril. And hopefully we will all find ways to tell each other stories that might pass the time until the winter, and eventually the pandemic too have passed, passed along with all the time – that inexorable vehicle facilitating all change – that needs to pass, between this now and that now-longed-for then.

the tips of a Seagull’s wings

From the first floor window of my flat I can see the backs of some houses and scaffolding erected on one of them. The scaffolders have left 3 or 4 poles standing tall and free above the building. It looks a little like the rigging of a ship. and this is appropriate, because I happen to know that building is, or used to be a pub called ‘The Flying Dutchman‘. You probably know that ‘The Flying Dutchman’ is a kind of mythological or ghost ship, or at least, we think that’s what it might be, and errm, we’d better check. Still, what interests me this morning about those protruding scaffolding poles is that every now and then a Black Crow comes and sits on one. It doesn’t stay for long and its probably not always the same crow, but whenever it comes and sits there it seems to complete a picture, to mean something to me that I can’t really explain.

In the end, I suspect that most of our lives are like that incomplete or momentarily completed picture which either way we can’t really explain. It’s no great loss, because, once you’ve acknowledged something as impossible – like living forever for example – you can and you have to just live with it. Having done so, you come to question the peculiar human desire to have and be things that we cannot have and be. Where does that come from, you wonder, and then dismiss that question too as yet another that you cannot answer and which you don’t have the time or inclination to dwell upon.

So, in the end, that crow might have taught me a lot despite being, in a way, incomprehensible. And would it make any difference to me if it were a Green Parakeet and not a Black Crow? Possibly, yes, as then maybe the symbolism would change. A black bird does have a deep rooted power in my ancient library of symbols, handed down through tens of thousands of years by my ancestors and their own questions and fears and meditations.

Perhaps I am that Black Crow, that singularity, that enigma, that momentary image.

I could end there, but no, I’ll write a little more. The sky is brightening now and the underbelly of the lavender clouds are faintly tinted pink. Most of this week has been occupied with the mammoth task of considering moving house and home, and of actually beginning to move house and home. I’m sure last time I did this, 10 years ago, it was far simpler. Now the task seems Herculean, but then, I’ve always considered myself a bit of a hero I guess. I am not one of those trendy ‘de-cluttering’ types, rather I am an unapologetic hoarder who keeps every single thing that I think is valuable – which usually means in any way unique or idiosyncratic, anything actually made by a hand and an eye and a mind, that might have surprised and pleased the person who made it. That covers a lot of objects here. On the other hand I don’t own any furniture: no chairs, rugs, sofas, tables, TVs, beds, wardrobes etc. So mostly, what I am moving from one home to the next is books, books, books, records, CDs, and archives of drawings, photographs, sound recordings, and memorabilia of events and exhibitions I’ve been involved with, and teaching experiences, plus a few tools e.g. computers, scanners, pots and pans, cameras and musical instruments, plus some artworks – embalmed, scrolled or framed, and oh yes, some clothes as well.

The last time I moved house I don’t recall having to pick up and consider every single object in my home and in my life, to turn it over and consider whether I should take it, give it away or dump it. That seems an extraordinary thing to have to do but that is what I am doing. It brings back many memories of course, while also repeatedly asking the question ‘just what is valuable?’, or ‘just what is value?’ It’s maddening in a way, but I haven’t gone mad yet.

I look up from the keyboard in the direction of the scaffolding, the Black Crow has gone but I just see the tips of a Seagull’s wings passing behind the frames of scaffolding above which the Crow sometimes sits, and I notice some bright powder-blue sky is pushing away the morning’s lavender clouds.

Between Transcendence and the Dumpster: Don’t Despair!

I guess last week’s post was a bit depressing, dealing, as it did, with the problems of personal and professional accommodation for a non-rich artist in London.

This week, I can announce that my artist partner and I have chosen a new place to move-into. In most ways it’s a great choice. There is just one problem. It is smaller than our present space. When my partner got priced out of her studio about 10 years ago she began to work at home and to store artworks at home too.

This week we’ve been unearthing, both their works (the artist Bada Song) and mine, from nooks, crannies, cupboards and wardrobes, while sadly coming to the conclusion that we’l have to destroy many of them, as we need to reduce a lot to fit our life and work into the new flat.

I’ll discuss this as a kind of tragedy but also as a way of thinking through the real difficulty of achieving a ‘work of art’ and the strange value art can have, somewhere between transcendent immortality and the dumpster (or ‘skip’ as the English say).

First, I just want to clarify that, while I champion the very broadest notion of ‘art’, which is of course and infinite number of things for an infinite number of peoples/cultures, my own education has, admittedly, been in what might be called contemporary fine art of a certain Euro-U.S tradition. That tradition, like all traditions, has its own language and value system and is esoteric to a certain extent. Like all forms of art, it also maintains the parameters of a certain community or ‘tribe’ perhaps.

But the point I am trying to make here is that it is extremely difficult to make a ‘work of art’ in and for any culture. Whether it involves enormous amounts of time and skill in the rendition of an object, or a minimal intervention in some form of sacred space (the white cube being just one such), or years of special training and forethought, even if in the service of what a appears to be a simple gesture.

So, today, as I was demolishing some works that I exhibited about seven years ago, I recalled the intense process of thinking through what I would make, what I could make, always trying to anticipate the kinds of evaluation the work would attract and receive in the articular context for which it was bound. I may not be making a good job of this writing, but what I am trying to do is just to stress and articulate how near-impossible that is to achieve.

After all, you are not just trying to make something beautiful, clever, unique etc. you are effectively trying to re-define what art is at every turn of your thought, in every micro-decision, and all the time keeping in mind not only the history of similar gestures into which you are entering the work, and not only your own judgements either, but somehow all of the other possible or potential judgements of all of the other artists and interested persons who might see and judge your work.

OK, perhaps I have at least scratched the surface of that point. It alludes to the difficulty and challenge that art students encounter when they study contemporary fine art. There is certainly a fun element to all creativity, but to qualify, whether we like it or not, as teachers and students we have to acquire the special skills outlined above, the skills of making a work that will stand-up to the critical pressures of the audience in the naked and vulnerable space of the gallery or given space.

Now, this relates to the destruction of mine and my partners works in the following ways: as I pull apart a piece of art, not only do I think about the weeks or months of stressed-out considerations, highs and lows of thoughtful invention and conceptual engineering that went into all of its decisions and manufacture, plus its transportation, costs, materials and very precise installation, I also enter that space between transcendence and the dumpster.

That is to say, all of that careful consideration, and the work’s eventual celebration, damnation, or encounter within difference in the show appears now to have been designed to achieve a certain transcendence, i.e. to use ideas and materials to achieve, to reach for, perhaps to discover or establish a value that did not previously exist, or that can only exist in art – not in the ‘real’ or ‘ordinary’ world.

Yes, there are certainly valuable things in the ‘real’ or ‘ordinary’ world (think of the sky, a puddle, a flower, a child’s smile etc.) but the transcendent value that art attains is, it seems to me, something other than that and special to itself and for itself. Art pursues, promotes and upholds a certain, particular and peculiar human value or valuation and then contributes this to the world of interactions between humans and the wider world.

Today, as we reluctantly destroy our finely wrought works of art, due to lack of capital, lack of money, power and space (not a problem for many of course – see last weeks comments about uninhabited property portfolios etc.), the transcendent value they achieved, tried to achieve, or perhaps partly achieved, quickly dissipates into dust, and there transcendence meets the dumpster.

It all seems tragic, and a victory of the dumpster over transcendence, a victory of Capital over art, of greed over thrift, of cynicism over a certain kind of innocent or naive, noble or even divine aspiration, a victory of the ‘real’ ‘ordinary’ world, of the ‘market’ over the artist, the artworks, over art and the art world’s attempts to insist upon an alternative economy, an alternative value.

This might be a day to despair, but, believing that art is always some kind of affirmation, I rescue from the dust and the dumpster the notion that this experience has at least helped to write and share these thoughts, which might just be of some compensatory value.

The Struggle to Continue Living & Working in a Marketised City Owned by Invisible People who Don’t Even Live In It

Well, since I feel I have a kind of emergency, maybe I should write about that today. I’ve always been good at, and unashamed about crying for help. It’s such a terrible and difficult time for so many people in the world that my own problems may seem ‘first-world’ (as they say) i.e. relatively slight, and the outcome of living close to the pinnacle of human wealth and comfort – given a global, relative scale, but nevertheless, they are MY problems today and loom large over the keyboard as I write.

Basically, the landlady has to sell the flat in which myself and my partner live and work. It’s not a particularly large flat. In fact you could walk around all its spaces and say you’ve seen the flat in about 10 seconds. But in terms of London apartments it has one or two unique charms plus one or two spatial idiosyncrasies which we have learned to utilise and ultimately fill. As artists on low and variable income our home is also our studio, the place where we have made and designed our works, shows, books and music over the years. It’s also become a storage place for our archives of works and for equipment we’ve collected along the way as we experimented with various media. Then there is a quite extensive library of books, a place with good broadband from which to teach-online, room to store our bikes (essential to cheap travel in the city). And then there are boxes of as yet unsold books, hidden away in just about every other remaining ‘nook’ or ‘cranny’ of the flat.

The problem is that London rents have gone up and up while ours, while still accounting for about 80% of our income, has remained the same for a few years. And so, now when we look for a way out and in to a new home/workplace we can’t see anything for a similar price that could contain and sustain all that we have accrued and developed here. So, I suppose I am just devoting the first part of this Blog post to a kind of appeal, asking anyone who reads it if they might have or know of any exception to the voracious market rule that might allow us to carry on building our life and work without too much of a crushing interruption or downturn in our fortunes (if so, you please leave a Reply to my cry in the Blog’s Comments section).

If that’s not particularly interesting in terms of writing and art, perhaps it’s worth just saying a little more about place, and home, and security, and disruption as they all pertain to the subject of writing and art. I’ve been through many crises in the 40 + years that I’ve struggled and strived to be an artist in London. I’ve never given up the fight, even though a few times I was driven out of the city and forced to start all over again from the beginning, literally. Whenever I made significant progress, against all odds, persisting in this way always proved worthwhile, vindicated and justified. Never, not once in my life, have I decided when I was going to leave my home, and where and when I was going to move and live next. I’ve never had the power or finance to do that and so it’s always been decided by someone else who had power over my life. Sadly, as above, I am still in that position, and despite now having completed 20 years of excellent academic work, published a bunch of books, and about 200 professional articles etc.

It’s harder, now I am older, to rally once again to find a way through this kind of crisis, which literally disrupts every foundation of what I am currently doing and aiming to do. It also comes at the busiest time of the academic year, when I am already overflowing with work and responsibilities – finding a new home is a substantial task, a job in itself. But somehow, I just have to believe that this won’t be disastrous, that somehow I’ll find my way to the next island, the next temporary shelter, where I can carry on trying to do my best work, which is all, I realise, that I ever wanted from life, and all I ever wanted to do. Today every London apartment is part of a ‘housing market’ or ‘property ladder’, but I have absolutely no interest in owning a property, nor in the notion of housing as a profitable investment. I just want a roof, and a desk, a kitchen and bathroom, a little bit of space, as well as a good relationship with a few editors if possible, a way to continue making my own books if I can, and a lively dialogue with life, with experience, with history, culture and with other voices and other minds. It’s sad, and quite frightening to see that, in our society and in our city the market has all-but pressed out all alternatives to itself, all exceptions to itself – though I still believe that in all the complexities of the city and its infinitely complex inhabitants, some exceptions and alternatives might just still be found. Here’s hoping!

Finally, I can’t help noting the irony that, in the past ten years, since a right wing party slipped into governmental power and gradually consolidated itself, this city has been ravaged by the rapid and relentless building of literally thousands and tens of thousands of new homes, in hundreds of ugly towers and developments that have sprung up North, South, East & West, while for someone like myself, who has lived and worked, contributed, strived and struggled here for 40 + years here, not one of those apartments is available to me, because of their exorbitant price. Worst still, it seems that many of them remain empty, rarely, if ever, visited, utilised only as parts of ‘investment portfolios’ that generate vast sums of money for invisible, absent people who never even visit the city, who know nothing about its streets, its people, its communities, its real and actual history and culture.

Notebook Notes That Set You Champing At The Bit

Dawn,
With Only
Time
For Company

The Tallest Flowers
Swaying
Like Cup-Final Fans

Could I Shelter
Under A Single
Fallen Leaf
(The Darkness There
Looks Inviting)

Three
Peb-Bles

A Fish Caught A Fisherman
Reeled Him In
And In
And in
Patiently
Until
Each Caught
A Glimpse
Of The Others’ Eye
Then
With A Wriggle
The Fish Set Them Both Free

The notes above are taken from my notebook and written in the past couple of days. I’m sure I’ve written about notebooks somewhere on my Blogs before. In a way, they are the beginning, the origin of everything I do. In this way, they and their contents are precious, sacred even. At the same time, they are cheap, ‘throwaway’ objects.

Having said that, I do find it hard to throw them away, and some years ago started loading them into a filing cabinet draw. Once every summer I go through them, pull out the best little writings and drawings and discard the rest. It’s a bit of a mess in that draw all the same, but you just have to accept that some aspects of life and of artistic activity are messy.

When I despair at the chaos, in my studio and in my head, a complex scenario involving unfinished manuscripts, archives of inspired but not yet resolved writings and photography, and all of this interwoven with all the complexities oand archives related to teaching, plus the demands of daily life, it’s easy to panic and despair. But then I think of the infamous studio of the painter Francis Bacon and tell myself that this is all just a process in which chaos creates the possibilities for well-formed, discreet and completed objects – e.g. a painting, or in my case a finished book – to emerge.

I must admit that, having alighted on the book format as the most fulfilling and satisfactory format for me, I do find myself, whenever I am not on course to do so, whenever there is not a book in process, in motion or on the horizon, ‘champing at the bit’ (as the English say), anxious to get closer to that satisfying form, that sense of resolution, completion and orientation.

If I draw our attention back now to those little notes above, they may also ask us what they are? Are they valuable in their own right? Are they worthless, ill-considered doodles or sketches? One or two seem to be influenced by my interest in haiku. Other might be just the beginnings of a poem or a parable. Are they inspired gems, as yet unscathed by more cynical second thoughts, as yet uninflected by editing, by some consequent and less pure strategy? How can I use them? Should they be forever notebook notes? Or might I even one day make a book comprised of little notes such as these? That’s a nice though. However, like so many ideas for books that I have in my head and lying in pieces around me, on my computer’s ‘desktop’, and/or in paper form among my archives, while the thought of such a sweet book as that is exciting and inspiring, it’s also another demand, a wish that cries out to be fulfilled, and that thus sets me champing again.

September: Plans & Wishes

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, September is my favourite month. It brings a slightly slanted sunlight and cool air yet still warm days, and all of which seems to connect me back to every previous September. It’s the month when the art schools return to study and thus when people who have decided to take their artistic interests more seriously take the plunge and enrol on an art course, beginning a great adventure in life, a special and different way to live an entire life.

It’s also a time of year when my family, as children, would take a holiday, or, more often (more affordable) day trips out with mum & dad. Later in life I was able to drive my mum down to Cornwall in South West England, usually at this time of year. And there, I must say, and despite travelling as much as I can, I still believe I had the best holidays of my life.

This particular September is unlike any other, due to the health crisis gripping the world, but I’ve managed to use the unusually long summer break (lengthened by the cancellation of summer schools and re-jigging of the university timetable) to read a lot more than usual, and to think a lot about how to adapt my teaching, learning, writing and publishing to this new world. I think I’ve come up with some exciting solutions, thus turning – as we always must, if we can – a crisis into an innovative and constructive response to that same crisis. But I have often been here before, on the brink of a new college year, with some great ideas about how to conduct my self and use the coming months creatively, only to see my best laid plans shredded by the day to day demands of the highly demanding and responsible role of teaching.

But these kinds of conflicts have confronted me ever since I found my first job as an art teacher (for which I must thank some kind of deity). Right from the start, I saw that teaching was so demanding that it would wipe-out the long and hard-won dialogue I had built-up with my studio. But rather than let a conflict devour both my studio and my teaching I resigned myself to treating teaching as my studio. I can honestly say that I have maintained this ethos, never repeating a lecture in 20 years, and constantly inventing and innovating in terms of my lectures and seminars and studio projects, so that both I and the students always feel we are involved in a practice, even if that practice often involves working with words, ideas, images, history, culture and discussion, as our materials.

So, I have a great plan now for this coming year, about a way to respond to many changes in the world, in art and in education, that we are facing, and a plan that also incorporates, and does not in any way conflict with the trajectory of my own work. I’m hoping this year to roll all of this together like never before, so that everything compliments and feeds into everything else. The outcome, if it works, will be a new book, a new seminar, two new lectures, and new ways of teaching and learning, using both new and old technologies. And all of this allows me to both delve back into my archive of unpublished teaching, learning, writing and visual practice, at the same time as building on my most recent achievements.

But as the English say, I’m ‘keeping everything crossed’ that my plan will succeed and not become devoured by external demands and forces, and perspectives that are unable to see and appreciate what I am trying to do. Meanwhile I intend to try to enjoy every remaining day of this golden September, always wishing that I could see, once again, the wide-open beaches, rocks, rock pools and vertiginous coastal paths of the North coast of the Cornish peninsula, facing, as it does, bravely up and out towards the Atlantic; and ideally wishing too that I could walk there once again with my mother, immersed in September’s splendid mix of warm sun and cool breezes, on paths and beaches and days that never seemed to end.

The Art Of Shadow-Boxing

N.B. I apologise to readers that this WordPress Blog facility, normally so simple to use,  has ‘improved’ and updated’ itself in ways that I find baffling, and so I can no-longer simply write and edit in the way I usually do – hence the form of the one long paragraph below – not my choice but something to do with aforementioned ‘improvements’ that I am unable to fathom or follow !!??
Recently, I’ve been feeling a bit ‘high and dry’. The summer gives me a chance to attend to my archive. And what I find there I am immensely proud of – all the published and unpublished written works, all the records of the courses I have invented and delivered to students, and the portfolios of images, projects, events and shows, just a few which have been exhibited, most not. But this pride is quickly followed by a sense of fear and dismay about where this has all led me, and what the future might hold. I feel like I may have climbed and climbed a most difficult tree, and one that took decades of focused attention to climb, only to find myself reaching thinner and thinner branches now and with no likelihood of arriving at a destination – which might be, or might have been, some sense of security and substantial recognition and reward. A few years ago, when I was visiting a sea-side town, I made my way to its sprawling emporium of antiques and knick-knacks. After gazing for over an hour into numerous cabinets and at the bountiful supply of strangely juxtaposed objects that had mysteriously found their way there from distant times and places, I chose to buy just two, tiny, cheap, but strangely charming objects, one of which was a crudely carved and painted figure, no more than two centimetres high, of a boxer, one arm outstretched in a punch, and who seems to have a bruise on one cheek. Yesterday, while relaxing in the park, I was watching a young boxer go through his exercises in the shadow of a tree. Much of this involved carefully controlled jabbing and dancing as if fighting (quite successfully) against an invisible opponent. I wrote the following down in my notebook: “Art is some kind of victory. It can be a struggle and something also at which we fail. Your ‘opponents’, however, as in life, may be real or imagined, visible or invisible, within you or without, human or inhuman.” Then: “Artists are undeniably competitive, and jealous“. I always enjoyed the mind and thoughts of Andy Warhol, whom I see as one of late 20th century American culture’s primary shamans. I loved his camp candour, as when he once admitted: “I’m sooo jealous. Even if I’m dancing and my right foot starts doing a good move my left foot gets jealous” (or words to that effect). It’s great to have this, otherwise commonly repressed sentiment articulated for us all by someone who can carry it off with a flourish like that. Yes, there are times when, as artists we really believe we are flying high, that we might have even ‘arrived’, that we have broken through the glass and class ceilings that frustrate and oppress us, and are soon to be recognised for our true value and for the lifetime of dedication and struggle we have applied to our work and to the aspiration ‘artist’. But there are just as many times when the bubble has burst, and we bemoan and find hard to believe how slim are the pickings we receive and are likely to receive in return for decades of effort, climbing and slipping down some image of a ‘greasy pole’ that we sometimes call a career. This year, I suppose I have had a share of both of these, but as I say at the outset, in the thoughts taken from my notebook after watching the boxer in the park, all and none of this is true. At times – perhaps just when we need them – we feel we have competitors, and / or experience jealousy – either our own or the jealousy of others. At other times, none of this is the case and none of this true. Our obstacles and opponents have become invisible, imaginary figures, like those conjured up by the boxer who can train alone while earnestly fighting with a figure that no-one else but he can see. And perhaps these are the best times, when we are quietly confident of our progress and satisfied with whatever acknowledgement we have received, but not puffed-up and neither dejected deflated by a sense of injustice as the world seems oblivious to the imbalance between what we have put into art, and into our art and what we have been able to extract, in return, by way of rewards. The artist’s life is, it seems, necessarily perilous. It may seem Romantic and old-fashioned to many savvy artists today, but I am unable to shake the feeling that, to pursue a life in art is somehow necessarily to eschew common-sense, sensible planning, astute economics and to rather follow, as much as possible, nothing but our art and what it seems to demand or require of us at each stage of our lives. Then again, there are surely degrees of perilousness variously relative to people with different economic and social statuses. It seems to me that, while our university arts courses nobly practice ‘widening participation’ (and in some ways have for at least a generation or more now) art will nevertheless tend to be a ‘rich man’s game’ or a middle-class career, in that it is far less dangerous to keep ‘taking risks’ and shimmying ‘out on a limb’ if you and your family have, for generations, been propertied, inheriting, well-educated and therefore well-connected professionals. But there I go again, shadow-boxing perhaps, creating opponents and obstacles that may or may not exist. Still, it’s wise to stay in-shape, because, I suspect, my life and work will always be a ‘fight’ or ‘battle’ in some respect, and the best I can do is stay nimble and ready to defend myself, if not ever clearly or actually hopeful of ‘winning’.

Keeping the pump primed – September

Well, I haven’t been feeling very inspired about my Blog for a few weeks now. And when I talk about ‘inspiration’ its partly to do, I think, with who I feel I am writing it for, and not just what I am writing.

In many ways, this Blog is for myself. When you put things online, people tend to ‘Like’ what you do, say nice things and encourage you, and occasionally posit a different opinion. But all of that is perhaps the least important aspect of Blogging for me. In fact, it’s kind of a diversion from the point and somehow ‘caps’ the possibilities and potential of the Blog and of my writing.

I suppose what I mean by that is that, there is no point in Blogging or writing if you are not doing something that feels special or exceptional (yes that’s the right word) in some way. So, when it gets reduced to a humdrum activity it loses its spirit or ‘inspiration’.

Then again, everything online becomes humdrum. Most comments are hurried and cursory. Nevertheless, I have had inspired times while Blogging, and at those times felt that the feedback I received was heartfelt and not dutiful and polite. It’s also true that, over the nearly 20 years now I’ve hosted various Blogs, there have been times when I have stopped the Blog, sometimes for a year or several years. Recently it’s been feeing like its dwindling, and here I am just trying to locate the cause.

Writing and Blogging can be ‘inspired’ and ‘exceptional’ in many ways, and just one of those ways is via candour. We might be exceptionally candid and self-reflexive about our writing our Blog. Then again, it can be inspired or exceptional in the surprising nature of its content – the thoughts that are driving it and the way they are transmitted. Perhaps then it is at its best.

There’s also good reasons to keep writing and Blogging even when uninspired and unexceptional. For me it’s always been a way of making sure I let off a little of the steam of ideas that fills my head every day and every week, whether I am writing, at the same time, more substantial pieces or not.

There’s always been a kind of backlog of ideas in my head, just as there’s a big backlog of potentially pubishable essays and books here in my archive. So, just knowing you’ve put even a few simple words ‘out there’ each week somehow stops that backlog becoming so much of a concern.

I also think of the Blog as a kind of pump-primer, that means I have never stopped writing and won’t get ‘blocked’ as a result. The Blog is just a thin trickle of continuity which means I don’t ever feel I have ‘stopped’ writing and need to ‘start-up’ again.

Now, there are lots of other, perhaps more interesting things I wanted to write about today, and things perhaps that a reader might find more engaging than this rather self-reflexive post. One of those things is ‘September’, my favourite month perhaps. I have so many beautiful memories of Septembers, the month when art schools (would, traditionally) start up again (and I can’t think of anything more exciting than that), and the month when I used to take holidays with my mother in Cornwall. September is a month when ‘summer is over’ and yet we, in the UK, invariably enjoy some beautifully bright still relatively long days lightly cooled by hints of autumn air; as we quietly relish hours that we savour all the more for the fact that we know that autumn and winter’s hard work and short dark days will soon be upon us again.

I could and probably should have written much more about ‘September’, and maybe next week I will. For now, this will have to suffice. As you can see, we’re going through a difficult patch.